National Parks Journal: Ranger Tara Ross Remembers the Historic 1988 Yellowstone Fires

by Jon D. B.
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“It was like the equivalent of what we’re seeing now.” Alongside incredible archival photographs, National Park Ranger Tara Ross recalls the “horrific, historic” Yellowstone Fires of 1988 exclusively for Outsider.

The Yellowstone National Park Fires of 1988 were how Tara got her feet wet, for lack of a better term. Her work in the NPS began the fall of 1987. Not one year later, the Storm Creek Fire would start in the park on June 14, 1988. Followed by the Shoshone Fire June 23. Then the Fan Fire. Red Fire. Lava Fire. Mink and Clover Fires. By July 22 with the North Fork fire… Everything was burning.

“The whole park was on fire. It was so . . . so bad. It was like the equivalent of what we’re seeing now in the far Western United States,” she emphasizes, before pausing.

“At that time, it was a historic fire.” Her words slow and her tone drops. 1988 would begin a pattern that is all too familiar to us today. In June of 1988, 18 naturally-occurring lightning fires were allowed to burn in Yellowstone, as July typically brought heavy precipitation. It always had.

That year it did not. July was bone-dry. No one saw it coming. The result? “A historic burning,” Tara says. “It really was horrible.”

9/7/1988-Yellowstone National Park, WY- A hugh plume of smoke rises in the air as the North Fork Fire approaches the Old Faithful parking lot.

In her more than 30 years at Yellowstone, Tara has seen tremendous things. Tremendous both in beauty and in horror. That’s the nature of the job, she says. But Tara’s also not one to boast, be theatrical, or seek any sort of recognition. For her to speak of something in this manner means it was truly as bad as it sounds.

39% of Yellowstone National Park Burned in 1988

“That’s all I did for several weeks was fight the fires,” she continues. “We got evacuated first, and then had to come back in and help control everything. That was a memorable time. The Fires of ’88.”

July of 2021 marked 33 years since the historic blaze, and the numbers really put things into perspective.

1988 would see an unbelievable 793,800 acres burn. This is 39% of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres.

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Roger Castillo, of the U.S. Forest Services, identifies hots spots near Grant Village in Yellowstone National Park in Wyo. on July 27, 1988. (Photo by Frank O’Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It got so out of control that, as Tara said, the National Park Service called all rangers back from their evacuation to fight the flames.

“You know, I was so young, and so new at everything that I sort of just rushed in and didn’t really think about how incredibly dangerous it was,” she recalls. “But hey, that’s the job! That’s what we signed up for.”

The damage was so extensive that in 2016, almost three decades after, the Maple Fire would ignite within the remnants of 1988’s largest of the Yellowstone Fires: The North Fork Fire. Maple scorched 51,555 acres due to the immense amount of dry, dead logs and debris left behind.

‘Slow Down… Take Our Role in Climate Change Seriously’

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SEP. 17 1988. A Army Chinook helicopter drops a load of water on fire Friday afternoon near Swan Lake in Yellowstone National Park. High winds brought flames again Friday to acres of the part for the first time since last weekend. (Denver Post via Getty Images)

While fire is the great destroyer, it also brings new life. And like the Phoenix of mythology, Yellowstone would eventually rise from her own ashes.

Today, the national park holds memorial signs showing the fire’s impact, like the regrowth of lodgepole pine forests near Madison Junction (below). After 30 years, the park says most woods lost in ’88 are thriving.

These young trees are a fraction of the size of their ancestors that burned under North Fork. Someday they’ll tower. But only, Tara says, if we slow down and take our role in climate change seriously – and prevent another 1988.

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WY – JULY 23: After 30 years most of the parks lodgepole pines destroyed in 1988 have regenerated and are thriving. Regrowth of trees near Madison Junction.. (Photo by William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Sometimes it will hit me and I will think about it quite a lot, really,” Yellowstone’s Tara Ross says. But in the end, as the saying goes: What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

For more information on the 1988 Fires, visit the National Park Service’s historical summary.

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