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Yellowstone marks 25th anniversary of massive fires that devastated park

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Posted at 9:43 PM, Sep 26, 2013
and last updated 2013-09-26 23:43:12-04

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK -- A lot has changed since Roy Renkin first visited Yellowstone National Park, but where some might see loss, he finds new life.

“Like they ate their Wheaties, you know, they’re really growing well,” said Renkin, who is in his 35th fire season as a fire ecologist at the park.

Twenty five years ago, Renkin was standing on different ground as he witnessed a series of small fires that sparked in the summer of 1988 grow bigger and bigger every month.

“Roughly 50 percent of the park forested area was burned during that one year alone,” Renkin said. “Yellowstone was all over the news. It generated lots of public interest in the fact that their park was burning up and would never be the same.”

As the nearly 1 million acres of fires burned, concern from the public grew with it.

“I was 5 and just remember seeing across the lake a campfire that looked a little bigger than it should be, but not too crazy,” said Amber Mills, who was camping at Lewis Lake with her family.

The Fourth of July trip was one of several the family had made to the park, but for everyone, this was the most memorable.

“Pretty incredible to watch that much force,” said Mills’ mother, Jodie Lemoine.

Initially, park rangers didn’t believe they would need to evacuate, but as the flames crept closer, Lemoine decided it was time to pack up and leave.

“It was scary when we left just knowing that you had fires on both sides of you, and at one point you could just be completely surrounded,” Lemoine said.

While they made it out safely, the park they left behind was almost unrecognizable.

“The first couple of years after the ‘88 fires this place was a very different scene,” said Al Nash, a spokesman for the park. “That first summer, 1989, you saw a lot of places with standing blackened trees.”

Biologists who visited the site predicted Yellowstone would not be able to support much of a forest going forward, but over the years, the views began to change.

“It didn’t destroy Yellowstone,” Nash said. “Yellowstone was different. Yellowstone was changed by ‘88, but by no means was Yellowstone destroyed.”

According to Renkin, it took about a decade for seed to migrate from outside areas to the burned portions of the park, however, where there was once charred ground there is still a treasured park, different, but still standing.

“Here we are 25 years later, and yeah, it’s still a forest,” Renkin said.