Maple Fire, September 10, 2016

Smoldering logs from burnout operations on the Maple fire in Yellowstone National park are shown in September 2016.

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YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo.— The grass is still green, but fire management officials would like to see a little more rain here this month. 

"If it doesn't start to rain, we're going to be very dry here very soon," said Becky Smith, the fire ecologist with the park. 

Park fire officials held a press conference here Monday where they told reporters that they expect an "average" fire season this year — provided some rain falls and the park isn't hit with a barrage of dry lightning at an inopportune time. 

What "average" means has been changing. Between 1972 and 2016, the park averaged total burns of about 5,900 acres each year. But in the last 10 years, the park has averaged upward of 13,700 acres burned. And in six of the last 10 years, the park has had more than 100 days of fire on the ground.

Dry stuff burns, and coming into the summer, Yellowstone looked pretty wet. Snowpack totals were higher than they have been in the last few years, and the snow stayed in the mountains well into the summer. But the last two months have been particularly dry, with some parts of the park receiving as little as 25 percent of normal precipitation from late April to late June.

"It turned off in May and June," Smith said. "Will it turn on again?"  

Wildfire is a natural part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, and many animals and plants benefit from the disturbance brought by fire. Because of that, park officials often choose to let naturally caused fires burn, choosing only to intervene when they threaten any of the park's developed areas.

John Cataldo, the park's fire management officer, said his job is about keeping as much fire on the landscape as he can. The park has 28 wildland firefighters, and Cataldo said they can monitor about a half-dozen fires in the park at a time, either by flying over them or watching them from lookouts.

When they have too much activity, they will send firefighters in to knock down natural fires, something they had to do a few times in 2016, when roughly 100 square miles burned within the park. 

"Every couple of days, we were putting smokejumpers on a new start," Cataldo said. 

The largest blaze in 2016 was the Maple fire. It burned about 45,000 acres in the northwest corner of the park, not far from the town of West Yellowstone. 

Cataldo said the Maple fire was unique because it marched through the scar left by the wildfires of 1988, when nearly 800,000 acres burned in the park. Recent burn areas are a natural fire barrier, and the 1988 burn area had slowed down a number of blazes in the past.

"They would move into it a bit as long as the winds were high," Cataldo said. "But as soon as the wind died, the fire would drop to the ground and have a really hard time getting back up."

The Maple fire started within the fire scar and persisted for a long time. Because of that, a team of researchers was brought in to study its behavior so they can better understand how the rest of the 1988 fire scars might burn.

Fires have already started in the southwestern United States. All but six of Yellowstone's wildland firefighters have already been sent to fires this year.

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Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1. 

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