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National Perspective | ENVIRONMENT

Yellowstone Reborn

July 27, 1998

Lightning-caused fires burned more than a million acres in the greater Yellowstone area in the summer of 1988. Ten years later, plants, saplings and wildlife fill the forest floor, a testament to the resiliency of nature. A look at what happened and the impact on the park.

The Fire Cycle

Fire is a vital part of the natural cycle of Yellowstone's forest ecosystem, 80% of which is lodgepole pine. The cycle repeats every 250 to 400 years.

* 0-50 years: Dead trees fall, enriching soil as organisms break them down. Groundcover and new lodgepole seedlings sprout.

* 50-150 years: As gaps form in canopy, sunlight penetrates forest floor, allowing spruce and fir trees to flourish.

* 150-300 years: Lodgepoles mature, preventing sun from reaching understory, which is gradually crowded out by lodgepole.

* Mature forest: Lodgepole pine dominates forest, with very little plant diversity.

* Fire: Usually starts as result of lightning strikes.

The 1988 Fires

June of 1988 began the driest summer on record at Yellowstone. High temperatures and single-digit humidity caused vegetation to dry out, perfect ingredients for wildfire.

* June 14: Lightning ignites the Storm Creek Fire in Custer National Forest.

* June 23: The Shoshone Fire is ignited. It forces the evacuation of 3,000 visitors on July 23.

* July 9: The Mist Fire is started by lightning.

* July 11: Four lightning fire break out: Raven, Clover, Lovely and Mink. Raven burns itself out by July 29.

* July 21: All fires within Yellowstone are declared as wildfires and subject to suppression.

* July 22: North Fork Fire is started by a cigarette. It eventually becomes the largest at 406,359 acres.

* Aug. 11: Firefighters: 2,725; acres 239,757.

* Aug. 20: Firefighters: 2,800; acres 325,000.

* Aug. 20: Dubbed "Black Saturday," 50-70 mph winds blow as fires consume a record 150,000 acres in one day.

* Aug. 22: Firefighters: 8,500; acres 650,000.

* Aug. 31: Firefighters: 9,300; acres 830,000.

* Sept. 4: Firefighters: 9,500; acres 933,000.

* Sept. 7: North Fork Fire sweeps across the southern end of Old Faithful complex, destroying 16 cabins and a barn. The historic Old Faithful Inn is spared.

* Sept. 11: Firefighters: 8,000; acres 1,325,000.

* Sept. 11: Snow falls over much of Yellowstone. Last fire is not extinguished until Nov. 18.

Sources: National Geographic, National Park Service, Associated Press;

Researched by JULIE SHEER / Los Angeles Times; photos courtesy of National Park Service

Yellowstone Facts

Size: 2.2 million acres

Trails: 1,000 miles

Highlights: Geysers, including Old Faithful; elk herds; grizzlies; and bison.

Year established: 1872 (first national park)

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