Sep 16, 2015

Yellowstone’s Spruce Fire benefitting park's forest, officials say

Though it has grown and it isn't being contained, the Spruce Fire in Yellowstone National Park is benefiting the forest in its isolated location, park officials say.

The lightning-ignited fire, approximately 10 miles west of Fishing Bridge and 2 miles south of Hayden Valley, grew to 2,594 acres by noon on Monday, but recent precipitation has slowed it down.

The Spruce Fire, as seen from the air on Monday. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service

“We got a lot of rain,” Yellowstone spokeswoman Julena Campbell said Tuesday. “About 1/2 inch of rain over the fire last (Monday) night.”

At this point, the fire would have to increase dramatically before fire managers would become concerned, Campbell said.

The National Weather Service predicted rain this week, with possible snow on Thursday evening, Campbell said. Fire managers are not expecting the precipitation to actually douse the fire, which is burning in 200- to 400-year-old lodgepole pine trees, but they do expect it to dampen the activity, Campbell said.

The Spruce Fire is in a remote location of the park. There are no structures or hiking trails in its vicinity. Still, park managers are watching the fire closely and have taken preemptive measures. That includes removing small vegetation around facilities in the Yellowstone Lake area and developing a fire fighting plan should the fire threaten structures or people, Campbell said.

They have also been developing a model to predict what the fire will do in the next seven days, Campbell said.

Fire managers did order some equipment — water pumps and hose — but they later canceled the order because of the rain. Fire suppression is costly, and firefighters and equipment are busy fighting fires in California and elsewhere, so canceling the order allowed the equipment to be put to better use where it's needed, Campbell said.

Data from the Northern Rockies Coordination Center says a little more than a dozen personnel have been involved in monitoring the fire, at a cost of around $67,781 as of Wednesday morning.


The Spruce Fire is in a remote area and is being allowed to burn. Photo courtesy Neal Herbert, National Park Service
Spruce Fire is a natural resource fire, meaning, unless the fire threatens structures or people, park officials will allow it to burn, while closely monitoring its progress, Campbell said.

It is promoting a healthy ecosystem by burning in a typical "mosaic" (checkerboard) pattern, leaving different levels of burn severity and pockets of unburned vegetation in the backcountry, according to the National Park Service.

Allowing the fire to take its natural course will remove fuels — standing and fallen dead timber.
If fire moves through an area every 100 years or so, then fuels can’t accumulate. With a limited amount of fuels, fires tend to remain smaller and burn less intensely, Campbell said.

“If we suppress all fires and do not allow them to burn through regularly, then in effect, we create a large amount of dead, downed, dried out fuel,” Campbell said.

Campbell compared a campfire-sized stack of wood to a bonfire-sized pile. If a human or lightning ignites the bonfire-sized stack, it has a lot more fuel, can spread more rapidly and can easily climb into live tree tops and sometimes scorch the soil so deeply it is actually sterilized.

Less intense fires may remain at ground level and are not as apt climb into the tops of trees, Campbell said.  If fire reaches tree tops, it can "crown." In fire terminology, crowning is when a fire moves through the crowns of trees or shrubs more or less independently of the fire burning along the ground fire.  

The Spruce Fire is burning in a fire-adapted lodgepole pine forest, according to the park service. Lodgepole pine trees grow serotinous cones, where resin covering the cones acts as a seal preventing them from releasing seeds. Fire melts the glue-like resin, thus distributing the seeds. The fire adds decomposing material to the soil and opens the canopy to give seedlings sunshine to grow.

“That’s how the forest rejuvenates itself,” Campbell said, adding that, “This is a very natural process that is happening.”

The decision on how to manage each fire in the park is based on a number of factors, including current and predicted conditions, as well as potential values at risk.

Managers decided to suppress two other park fires in the last week: a human-caused fire in Mammoth Hot Springs on Sept. 10 and a lightning-caused fire near Yellowstone's northwest boundary on Sept. 12.

To learn more about fire management in Yellowstone, visit


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