Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 4
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Rocky Barker brings light to Yellowstone fires

It may be a big claim to make, but Rocky Barker is prepared to argue that the Yellowstone fires of 1988 changed America.
Throughout the summer of 1988 fire scorched more than 1.2 million acres of Yellowstone National Park. However, according to Idaho environmental journalist Barker, who spoke on the subject on Oct. 15, more lasting than the charred landscape has been the effect the fires had on the American psyche.

“[The fire] made people more willing to challenge their views of what nature was,” said Barker. “The fires of 1988 forced us to see the power and fury of nature in a way nobody expected…it came at a time when we were beginning to deconstruct how we think of wilderness.”

Barker, whose book, “Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America,” extensively examines the larger impact of the seemingly catastrophic Yellowstone fires, discussed the changes the fires have brought about in the Forest Service and the way Americans conceive of nature.

Barker said the vast majority of change in the Forest Service since its inception has taken place in the past 19 years since the massive fire. According to Barker, until 1988 the universal policy of suppressing fire at whatever cost went largely unquestioned. The fires were far bigger than any previous fires in the park.

While Barker and other forest and fire experts watched 36 percent of the park go up in flames $120 million was spent trying to contain a fire that was only slowed and eventually quenched by the fall snow.

Looking back at this waste of resources and unnecessary endangerment of thousands of lives, the Forest Service finally began to question their “archaic policy,” said Barker.

“[Out of the fires] grows the idea of bringing natural processes back into the park. …People started to realize we’ve gotta let nature back into nature.”

This change in philosophy has been characterized by the Forest Services’ increasing willingness to view fire as a potentially beneficial natural process.

While the idea of allowing fire to run its course still makes people uncomfortable, change is happening.

“Part of our policy today isn’t called ‘letting it burn’: it’s called ‘fire use,” said Barker. “At least we’ve got fire back on our minds.”

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