Fire studies at Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks

bison Yellowstone National Park

Above: A bison in Yellowstone National Park, May 25, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Two recent and ongoing studies at the two big “Y” parks are yielding results about fire behavior and the effects of naturally occurring fire. The excerpts below are both from

The first is about allowing wildfires to burn at Yosemite National Park, rather than suppressing them:

An unprecedented 40-year experiment in a 40,000-acre valley of Yosemite National Park strongly supports the idea that managing fire, rather than suppressing it, makes wilderness areas more resilient to fire, with the added benefit of increased water availability and resistance to drought.

After a three-year, on-the-ground assessment of the park’s Illilouette Creek basin, University of California, Berkeley researchers concluded that a strategy dating to 1973 of managing wildfires with minimal suppression and almost no preemptive, so-called prescribed burns has created a landscape more resistant to catastrophic fire, with more diverse vegetation and forest structure and increased water storage, mostly in the form of meadows in areas cleared by fires.

“When fire is not suppressed, you get all these benefits: increased stream flow, increased downstream water availability, increased soil moisture, which improves habitat for the plants within the watershed. And it increases the drought resistance of the remaining trees and also increases the fire resilience because you have created these natural firebreaks,” said Gabrielle Boisramé, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and first author of the study…

The next article covers a study into the fire behavior of this summer’s fires that spread through the footprints of the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park.

…”Largely up until this point, fire has not necessarily carried well through the ’88 fire scars,” Yellowstone fire ecologist Becky Smith said. “I mean, it definitely has before, but it usually takes very specific conditions, like high winds or a very specific fuel bed. But this year, we’re definitely seeing it burn much more readily in the ’88 fire scars.”

The park has called in a special federal team that studies fire behavior to find out why.

“We’re trying to use it as a good learning opportunity to try and really narrow our focus on how and when the ’88 fire scars will burn,” Smith said. The 1988 wildfires burned 36 percent of the park.

It’s the first time Yellowstone has used the special team’s services, she said.

The 13-member team is studying two fires burning in the 1988 fire scar. It has deployed special heat-resistant equipment with sensors, cameras and other instruments to measure things like temperature and wind where the fires are burning…

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

2 thoughts on “Fire studies at Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks”

  1. It will be interesting to see what they come up with. Especially interested in Yellowstone. I have to admit that when I visited Yellowstone in early June I was thinking a lot of that country could and needs to burn again. I would be very interested in the intensities they found in the “re-burned” areas.
    The Yosemite study seems very interesting as well, especially in light of increased soil moistures and stream flows, something I personally would not have expected but makes sense once I think about it. We have lots of ways to calculate and evaluate “First Order Fire Effects” but the longer term effects are where the true benefits occur, and I’m just not sure we, as land managers, fully understand and appreciate them.

  2. It would seem that these are keen observations of fire behavior in forested areas of two flagship National Parks as viewed through history, but this in no way explains how fires burn in the many other ecosystems. In 1985 we anticipated the Los Padres NF Wheeler fire which resisted all control for several weeks would finally slow considerably when it ran into the 3rd largest California fire scar of the Matilija Fire of 1932. In fact other fires had run more recently (and deadly) through the area. Certainly this would stop the onrushing blaze! But it didn’t, just as other wildland fires in brush covered areas have also not been stopped by previous fire scars; the fire increased the rate of spread in the finer fuels. It’s good that fire predictions are being made from observable facts, but the complexity and influence of the ecotypes and local factors such as topography and weather factors make any large area generalization of fire behavior mostly meaningless. Each study should apply only to the specific area that it is conducted in and then only if a long historical trend can be identified.

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