Field Notes

Forest Fire Information for Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

by JasonAug 20, 2013
The Alum fire in Yellowstone National Park
The Alum fire burning in Yellowstone’s Hayden Valley taken from the webcam on Mt Washburn


The fire season in the Greater Yellowstone has just turned on and as usual visitors with plans to vacation here are starting to get concerned. Like most years, the national news picks up stories about how the west is burning down with grim photos of scorched earth and flames licking at our doorsteps.  The reality of fire in the west is much different, especially in remote places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Though forest fires are always a concern for anyone with homes bordering wildlands, the truth about forest fire is that it is an integral part of the ecosystem and an annual occurrence in the western United States. This year is no exception and for the most part has been a mild fire year in the Yellowstone region.

Yellowstone in 1988

In 1988 one third of Yellowstone burned with over 780,000 acres of the park burned. Vast areas were scorched and the American public was furious and saddened by what they perceived as a great tragedy. In fact, the fires of 1988 were long overdue and created what is now a much more healthy and vibrant ecosystem in Yellowstone National Park. Due to the uproar from the media and the public, both the park and academia launched study after study into better understanding forest fire and the role of fire in diverse ecosystems. Forest fire ecology wasn’t born by the 1988 forest fires but the field definitely matured and gained momentum.

What we learned from all these studies is that conifer forests have evolved to at least tolerate regular fires and in most cases the entire ecosystem required regular fires to function and remain healthy. In the case of Yellowstone, 80% of the forest is lodgepole pine which has evolved to expect fire about every 75 to 100 years. These trees produce a specialized cone which remains sealed until it is burned. When a fire burns the forest, these serotinous cones, will burst open and scatter the seeds over the newly cleared forest floor. Some studies have indicated that as the trees mature they begin to produce more serotinous cones as the likelihood of another fire increases. As the trees approach the average fire interval of the region they reach a peak production of the cones. That, to me, is amazing! The trees actually NEED to burn in order to better regenerate.

In other words, what we see as destruction these trees, 80% of the forests of Yellowstone, see as a chance to successfully reproduce. Through further study of the aftermath of the great fires of 1988, we learned that most of the other species that call Yellowstone home also benefited greatly in the long run. Take a walk through a dense mature lodgepole forest and you will notice how few plants live on the forest floor. Then walk into a burned area about 3 years after a fire and it will look like a meadow filled with grasses, flowers and sedges. A few years later you will start to see new trees coming up surrounded by a plethora of plants that you will rarely see thriving in the shade of a mature stand of trees.

The other thing you will notice about these burned areas is that even today you will see dead trees still standing from the 1988 fires and others littering the ground that have been blown to the ground by wind. These logs, stumps and trunks that appear to us to be ‘a waste’ or ‘sad to see’ actually provide tremendous habitat for birds, insects and small mammals among other organisms that thrive in Yellowstone. Again a mature forest just does not have the variability of a landscape that is a patchwork of areas in different stages of forest succession.

In the end fires will happen and as long as they aren’t threatening human life and property, forest fires are good for the ecosystem and the plants and animals that call this place home. For travelers heading to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone over the next month just keep in mind that there can be temporary road closures and smoke is common depending on where the wind is blowing in relation to the fire. Though the smoke can get in the way of great landscape shots the smoke in the air can create great sunrise/sunset shots and warm the light making wildlife photography better! It’s interesting to note that even Williams Henry Jackson, the first photographer to make photos of the Tetons and Jackson Hole in 1872 struggled with the haze of smoke from naturally occurring forest fires.

Current State of Grand Teton and Yellowstone

Currently there are no major fires in Grand Teton National Park and 4 fires burning in Yellowstone. The main fire in the photo above is currently being reported at about 4,000 acres and probably growing due to strong winds. It is burning on the east side of the lower loop which won’t affect access to most of the park’s main attractions (with the exception of Mud Volcano). It is again important to note the scale of the landscape – Yellowstone is 2.2 million acres meaning that only a very small fraction is affected. Even in 1988 when fires were raging across the park, Yellowstone remained opened for business with only temporary closures when one of the many fires approached a roadway, trail or structures.

Here is an update from Yellowstone emailed to us earlier today that might help with travel plans. We will keep you posted as things change:

August 19, 2013 – 11:00 a.m.

Summary:  Sunday was the fourth hot, dry day in a row across Yellowstone, which resulted in continued growth on the three active fires in the park.  All three fires produced tall smoke columns visible for several miles in all directions.  In addition, smoke from fires outside the park to the north and west in Montana and Idaho also contributed to occasionally hazy conditions at some locations at times during the day.  Fire managers continue to focus on providing for public and firefighter safety, and for the protection of structures, communities, and natural and historic resources.  
Alum Fire:  Winds prompted two fingers of this fire to grow to the southeast on Sunday, after a long northeast run on Saturday.  This lightning caused fire was discovered in the backcountry west of Mud Volcano on Wednesday, August 14, and was only 3 acres until critical fire weather conditions Saturday afternoon prompted it to expand to 3,000 acres in a matter of hours. The fire grew another 1,000 acres on Sunday, bringing the estimated size to 4,000 acres.  The fire perimeter remains within a mile of the Grand Loop Road south of Mud Volcano and there is the potential for temporary closures of the road between Canyon Village and Fishing Bridge Junction.  The latest road status information is available 24-hours a day by calling 307-344-2117.  
Mud Volcano, LeHardy Rapids, and several picnic areas and pullouts, as well as, some backcountry trails in the area are temporarily closed. 
Additional firefighters and engines arrived on Sunday and more are expected today and later in the week as fire mangers focus on protection of the road corridor, the boardwalk in Mud Volcano, and the nearby power line.  As a precaution, structure protection efforts are already underway in Fishing Bridge, Lake Village, and Bridge Bay should the fire advance toward those areas in coming days.  While area evacuations are not imminent, preparations are underway to assist residents and visitors in leaving the Fishing Bridge, Lake Village, and Bridge Bay area in the unlikely event that an evacuation is necessary in the coming days.
Alder Fire:  This fire at the south end of Yellowstone Lake is producing a smoke column in the afternoon and evening visible from all around the lake.  Sunday’s hot, dry, windy conditions prompted it to grow to 2,000 acres.  However, it is on a peninsula at the south end of Yellowstone Lake and is hemmed in by water on three sides and by a recently burned area to the south. Several backcountry campsites on The Promontory have been temporarily closed.   This lightning caused fire was discovered on August 14.
Druid Fire:  This fire burning in a steep heavily timbered area on Druid Peak is visible at times from along the Northeast Entrance road.  It increased slightly from 60 to 75 acres on Sunday. This fire was started by lightning and was discovered on Friday, August 9. 
Other Fires:  The Passage Fire was discovered Thursday at the south end of Yellowstone Lake. This lightning caused fire remains quiet and is just half an acre in size.  Some smoke was again seen on the Snake Fire, located three miles east of the South Entrance along the boundary with the Bridger-Teton National Forest.  It remains estimated at 200 acres.  At times some of the park fires are visible on the Mount Washburn Fire Lookout Web Cams
Weather:  Another hot, dry day with gusty westerly winds is forecast for Yellowstone, which would prompt all three of the park’s active fires to grow again today. 
Impacts to visitors and area residents:  All roads leading into and through the park and the surrounding forest and all campgrounds, lodging, stores, and visitor services are open.  These fires are not a threat to visitors or area residents.  Updated park road information is available 24-hours a day by calling 307-344-2117.
Additional information: Maps, photos, and update information can be found on the web at  You can also follow us on Twitter @YellowstoneNPS. The next fire update will be prepared and distributed by Noon Tuesday, August 20.  
Update: As the wind picked up the day after this original post (Aug 20) – the road between Fishing Bridge and Canyon was closed overnight. The road has since reopened but the fire is still active and road closures are likely as the winds increase and/or shift direction. Here is a photo I shot last night of the fire as it increased and trapped us Hayden Valley. That worked out well though as were photographing a ton of wildlife plus watching a forest fire up close is an amazing experience!
The Alum fire in Yellowstone National Park on August 20th. As the winds picked up the fire gained momentum and the clouds of smoke began to billow.
Jason Williams
Our Expert

Jason Williams

Founder / Naturalist Guide
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