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NATURE TURNS THE TABLES ON NAYSAYERS AFTER '88 BLAZES

NATURE TURNS THE TABLES ON NAYSAYERS AFTER '88 BLAZES

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Don't go asking the folks at Yellowstone National Park about the damage caused by the fires of 1988. If you do, you'll get an answer something like this:

``First of all, we don't consider that it's damaged,' says Marsha Karle, the park's assistant public affairs officer. ``Fire's a natural event, and in a natural area, it's essential to forest rejuvenation.'Now that the firefighting is over, Yellowstone officials are battling the idea that fire is always a bad thing. It seems almost every park person has a spiel about ``nature's cycle,' or ``the ebb and flow of life' ready to tell at the drop of a Smokey Bear hat.

Last year, a record 2.68 million people visited Yellowstone. This year, park officials expect tourists to set a new record. They will find exhibits on the ``role of fire' tucked along roads and trails, and rangers invariably touch on the subject of fire during their slide shows and guided walks.

``I think the educational process has been very successful in that many people go away from it saying, 'Oh yeah, I understand now,' ' Karle says.

But the forest itself is probably the best teacher.

A few weeks ago, one of the most powerful images of death and rebirth was lime-green grass and sprays of yellow wildflowers growing from charred ground, surrounded by tree trunks that looked like spent matchsticks.

The contrast in colors was striking. So was the message that beautiful things can grow - in some cases, can only grow - after what looks like a disaster.

``I would say that in most of the burned areas, you're gonna see some green grassesgrowing, some wildflowers and some seedlings,' Karle says. ``The seedlings are probably 2-, 3-, 4-inches high in some areas.'

Most of the seedlings are lodgepole pines, the long, skinny trees that make up most of the forest, along with aspen and spruce. The pines contain cones sealed with resin - serotinous cones for you crossword types - that is melted only by the heat of fires. When the fires subside, the trees drop their seeds.

``These are the ones that really need fire to regenerate,' Karle says.

The animals, too, are dependent on forest fires. In a mature forest, the canopy of leaves keeps sunlight from reaching the forest floor, and the result is very little in the way of wildlife snack food.

Recently, elk, bison and deer have been sighted nibbling grass in areas that burned. ``It's easier for them to get to,' Karle says. ``There's more for them.'

Generally, the animals fared very well during and after the fires, which started in May 1988. Normally, dozens of fires start in Yellowstone every summer. Many of them are caused bylightning, some by humans. That summer, the causes were no different, but the conditions were.

Seasoned by seven years of drought, the underbrush and pine needles were prime tinder. Hot winds blasted the forests. About 50 fires broke out. Some burned themselves out, others didn't. They spread rapidly, joining other small fires to make the eight major blazes that kept park officials running all summer.

At first, officials went along with the policy of letting certain fires burn. By the time they realized that wasn't going to work, there wasn't much they could do to stop the biggest fires. Then, they decided to try to put out all fires from the start. Their efforts still didn't seem to matter.

That summer, tourist traffic slowed to a trickle. Parts of the park were closed. Many back country trails and bridges were reduced to ashes. Firefighters had to douse the popular Old Faithful Inn, constructed from pine logs, to keep it from catching.

Finally, the snows of October came, and the flames died. Almost a third of the park's 793,880 acres had been burned to some degree, despite the best efforts of almost 25,00 firefighters.

Park officials started rebuilding almost immediately. They replaced back country bridges, re-covered fire breaks with pine needles and removed fallen trees from trails. Nature started rebuilding, too. That fall, grass sprouted in the areas that burned in early summer.

The animals, who simply moved out of the way of the fires, came back to their habitats. The next spring, as experts promised, there was a spectacular show of wildflowers in the blackened fields.

``It was incredible,' Karle says. ``It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.'

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