Hope in a Burned Forest

It was the year 1988.  CDs outsold vinyls for the first time, a movie ticket cost $3.50, gas was at 91 cents/gallon, and rainfall in Wyoming was higher than average in the spring.

As the rest of us were trying to figure out Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Wyoming’s weather grew unusually dry.  So dry, in fact, a few fires started in Yellowstone National Park, though nothing the park couldn’t handle.  It’s actually good to let some of the dry brush in a forest burn naturally (aka when started by lightning).  It prevents larger disasters from occurring.

Summer came, Dirty Diana topped the charts and as July 15 came and went and only 8,500 acres of the park’s 2,221,766 acres had been burned.  Around this point the park decided it was time to fight the fires, just to make sure they were under control.

Photo by Jeff Henry

Dry conditions and winds only cause the fires to worsen—some of which were not naturally caused.  One of the most damaging fires, the North Fork fire, starts from a discarded cigarette butt.  North Fork fire consumes 504,025 acres from July 22nd to November (no specifics on which fires were put out when, just that all fires had officially ceased November 18).

Then comes Black Saturday.

August 20, 1988 sees hot and windy conditions.  Winds average 30 to 40 mph with gusts up to 70 mph.  Fires roar and double from where they were burning to 480,000 acres.  By this time the smoke is so thick visitors to the park have to use headlights to see.

On August 31 park officials note that the North Fork fire may soon threaten the Old Faithful area, including the historic Old Faithful Inn.  On September 7, the fear became more of a reality, as a firestorm blasts through the Old Faithful area, destroying a few structures, but the Inn is saved.  (Apparently cars left too close to the fire had their wheels melted!)

Photo courtesy of NPS.gov

Finally on September 11 snow comes to help save the day, calming many of the fires, making previously feeble attempts to stop the fires now actually productive.

I remember driving through Yellowstone after the fires, though I was pretty young at the time.  Charred lodgepole pines stuck out like charred tombstones in black ashes.  Many of us wondered how long it would take before Yellowstone recovered–if ever.

Photo by Jim Peaco

HOPE

I think in life, whether with our writing, our jobs, our families—whatever it is we’re focused on—there may come those times when we feel like our forest is burning down.  And then there are those times when fire ravages the jujubes out of everything and you’re certain life as you know it has just ended and all you’re left with is a graveyard of charred trees.

How will you ever rebuild?  How long will it take?  What good can even come of the charred ruins now?

Don Despain Sapling

A seed of hope amidst ruin. Photo by Don Despain

Forests need fires.  It’s a natural part of their growth and existence.  In many forests its the only way the trees will release their seeds.  It’s part of nature to tear things down only to build them back up.

Take muscle growth for example.  Unless you’re tearing those muscles down with training, and making them face resistance, they will never come back stronger.

We will have to face our own fires in our lives.  Some of them may be manageable, others may rage out of control.  But if we understand and embrace that these trials of fire are meant to strengthen us, if we let them, there’s no limit to how strong we can grow in any field.

Yes, there will be times when the devastation caused by these trials seem more than we can bear.  But with strong reliance on the process, on the friends and family we trust, on those things we believe in that are greater than ourselves, we can make it through.  We will make it through.

It’s not always easy to recover from these fires.  It may take a few days, it may take a few months, it may even take a few years.  But the important thing to remember is that recovery can and will happen—if we let it.

Can you imagine if the rangers went through Yellowstone and plucked out every sapling that managed to push its way through the charred ground?  But isn’t that what we do to ourselves sometimes?  We find hope too painful and we want to crush it.  It reminds us too much of what we’ve lost and we fail to see what will be, only if we give it the time.

If you haven’t faced the metaphorical damage of a Yellowstone Fire in your life, be warned its coming—often when you least expect it.  But if you understand these things are only meant to strengthen you, you’ll pull through it much faster.

And for those of us who have faced our Yellowstones and may face even more of them, remember these are small moments.  Each of us, whether writer, artist, mom, scientist—even the high school janitor—all have the potential to accomplish something great in the course of our lives.

We just have to remember to let our hope pull us through the bad times.

Ann Deutch Sapling

Lodgepole pine saplings the spring after the 1988 fire. Photo by Ann Deutch

Have you been through your own Yellowstone? What do you do in times of devastation that helps you get through? What advice would you give to others? What does hope mean to you?

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14 thoughts on “Hope in a Burned Forest

    • Yeah. I live in Utah along the Wasatch fault line which ends at the Yellowstone caldera. We’re due for an earthquake any time now, and then there’s always the wondering about what might occur in Yellowstone.

      I’m glad though that you found this post helpful.

  1. I’ve been through a lot in my lifetime. My childhood wasn’t the best. My father grew up in an abusive home and carried some of those traits with him. While I don’t believe we were abused, we were scarred. My brother and sisters all ran away at some point. My father would ask me why I stayed. I never had an answer. To this day I still don’t know why I stayed as long as I did. Reading this post made me realize I hoped it would get better. I wanted it to get better. I believe my parents did too but never knew how to make it better. You see all any of us ever wanted was to feel loved. Having lived through that fire has shown me the kind of man I don’t want to be. Like an overworked muscle, I’m much stronger now because of the events from my childhood. I’m stronger because I chose not to let those events drag me down.

    What does hope mean to me? Each new day brings another chance. Another chance to grab hold of a dream. Another chance to tell someone how much you love them. Another chance to forgive those who hurt you. Another chance to live. Even in our darkest hour there is hope. But only for those who are willing to see.

    I think you said it best when you said, “It’s not always easy to recover from these fires. It may take a few days, it may take a few months, it may even take a few years. But the important thing to remember is that recovery can and will happen—if we let it.” So true.

    Lovely post, Jae. This, in my opinion, is one of your best yet. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

    • Thanks. I’m sorry you’ve been through so many hardships. It was actually due to you, several other writers and other people I knew that were going through hard times that this came to mind. I have the picture of the lodgepole saplings hanging in my room, because it always reminds me of that great hope. And because I lived close to Yellowstone growing up, I feel like the event was very personal.

  2. Awesome article Jae. Like all cliches, ‘What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ holds a lot of truth.

    Oddly enough, I spent a few days with my family in Yellowstone around the same time you did. I don’t remember much about the fire other than, well, there was a fire.

    • Large portions of Yellowstone now you can hardly tell there was ever that major fire. It seems like the last trip I went on, maybe 3 years ago, there were still a few areas that looked charred, but they do continue to have smaller fires every year, so it could just be that. It seems like some of the places by the road have signs that indicate the regrowth.

      But yeah, if we didn’t keep a history or have the internet I think people would hardly believe it had happened. Amazing what a little time will do for recovery.

  3. Thank you for this great post! Sometimes it’s hard to see anything positive coming out bad situations, but just like book characters, we need to survive and learn our lessons from those hardships to grow.

    I’m sorry to say that I’ve never been to Yellowstone, but when I do finally get to visit there, I’ll probably think of this post. 🙂

    • I have to admit, it was fascinating to relive that little bit of childhood while researching this post. I remembered only tidbits before reading up on it. All I remember teachers stressing at school was a cigarette butt had somehow started it. Not exactly accurate, but truth to a point.

      If you go, visit the grand prismatic spring. It’s a fantastic site, IF you can catch it during the right conditions. Probably a hotter day, as there’s steam otherwise. But it makes for a ninja-esque walk if you catch it on a cooler day with all the mist.

    • I think a lot of people don’t realize they’re trying to hide from hope. It’s easier to remain all charred and burnt because that means the fire can’t come through again, it’s got nothing to burn. But then that means a bleak emptiness to avoid fire. I’d rather get burned again and again then have nothing. What do you think?

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