The 1988 Fires in Yellowstone
In the summer of 1988, massive fires engulfed approximately 1/3 of the landscape of Yellowstone National Park. These fires were the largest recorded fires in the history of Yellowstone. According to Dan Whipple, It is estimated that 683,000 acres were burned within Yellowstone National Park, and 1.2 million acres were burned in the surrounding areas. Scientists and politicians debated about whether or not to allow these fires to spread. Even with the eventual fire control, the damage was extensive. It wasn’t until a snowstorm hit in September that the blazes finally ceased. Within one year, the world watched as new life began to burst forth, spreading beauty amongst the ashes.
Looking for beauty from ashes
Several years after the Yellowstone fires, my parents took me on a cross country trip to see the United States. We stared down in awe at the vast Grand Canyon, looked up in wonder at our presidents sculpted out of a mountain side, and quizzically took in the oddities at the Cosmos. Like a kid in a candy shop, I documented each destination with my small camera, determined to be the next Ansel Adams. I have loved photography since I was a little girl, and this trip was going to go down in the books as an epic adventure. As the budding “family photographer,” I set out to “capture it all.” When we reached the much anticipated trip to Yellowstone National Park, however, I felt greatly disappointed.
Upon entering Yellowstone, we saw leftover evidence from the fires every direction we looked. An endless sea of tall, burnt tree trunks covered the landscape. I remember loudly complaining about the fire damaged landscape, as if it were my parent’s fault. My mom, being the optimist that she was, told me to try and find the beauty in the burnt wood. “Look for patterns in the trunks. See if you can capture something beautiful.”
Beauty from ashes? Really? How could I possibly find something lovely in those burnt sticks? I only saw ash and ruin. I felt my young photography career coming to a screeching halt before it even had a chance to begin. As I cried out in protest, I received a quick but powerful correction from my dad. “Never disrespect your mother again.” He didn’t have to say anything else. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Maybe I could find beauty within the ash-strewn landscape? After a few minutes of pouting, I pulled out my camera and reluctantly began taking pictures.
Healing from fire takes time
I have often pondered the lessons that I learned that day, looking for beauty from ashes. A few weeks ago I returned to Yellowstone National Park with my own family. 30 years have passed since the Yellowstone fires of 1988. To my surprise, many of the burnt tree trunks were still visible, standing as a testament to the flames that had once consumed them. Yet, right next to them, small and large trees had grown. There in front of me stood this new growth, as if taunting the flame trenched landscape. Outwardly these trees testified to me of their inner strength and determination in spite of their history.
This vision of new growth after all these years brought me to tears. I reflected upon the many trials I had experienced in my own life as well as in the lives of others. Fires usually leave outward scars. The effects of some fires, however, are not seen from the outside, but are experienced in the inner chambers of our hearts. Many experience heartache and trauma that is so severe and so horrible that it is not fit for sharing in such a public forum. Yet, how do we overcome such trials in our lives?
Our family recently went through counseling from such a trial. As a result, the counselor told me that my counseling would not be complete until I could see the blessings that came from our trial. At the time, I could not do it. When you are burned and everything you once loved turns to ash, how do you move on? How do you find the inner strength to get back up when you are surrounded by the smoke and haze of your circumstances? First of all, we cannot expect healing to take place overnight. The heart takes time to heal. Just like the trees in Yellowstone needed 30 years to regrow (and perhaps longer), some trauma also takes time to recover from. I have learned that I need to be patient to allow time for the natural healing to take place.
New growth often comes through fire
In addition to time, I have also learned that great strength and beauty can come through adversity. This new growth is an essential part of the healing process. Since the 1988 Yellowstone fire tragedy, scientists have learned a lot about the benefits of fire in nature. According to the news report shown in the video above, Lodgepole Pine Trees make up over 80% of Yellowstone National Park. At a meeting in Jackson in 1993, Monica Turner of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory said, “In many burned-over areas where mature lodgepole pines once stood, the number of established seedlings is eight times as large as the original number of trees. Many lodgepole seeds require fire to open.” I found it interesting that in order for the lodgepole pine trees to survive and give new life, fire was necessary.
I feel like the same is the case in our own lives. We need to go through a refiner’s fire in order to grow stronger. As the beautiful Hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” simply states,
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.”
I truly believe that we are given adversity to help us learn and grow, even though it is painful at times. Having this knowledge has helped me to see the bigger picture during times of trial.
When all seems lost, God provides a way
Just like He created the tiny lodgepole pinecone that will only open up with the heat of a fire, I believe that God has prepared a way for us to heal as well. He has provided a Savior for each one of us. Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, I was able to find peace, hope, healing, and forgiveness. I felt carried during the times I didn’t have the strength to walk as well as hope for a brighter future. Through it all, I was never left alone.
President George Q. Cannon once taught: “No matter how serious the trial, how deep the distress, how great the affliction, [God] will never desert us. He never has, and He never will. He cannot do it. It is not His character [to do so]. … He will [always] stand by us. We may pass through the fiery furnace; we may pass through deep waters; but we shall not be consumed nor overwhelmed. We shall emerge from all these trials and difficulties the better and purer for them.” I believe this with all my heart.
One of my favorite scriptures is Luke 12:27. It reads, “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” If God takes into consideration the lilies of the field and provides for them, how much more will He care for us? I had the opportunity to hear Roger Hoffman, the composer of the song, “Consider the Lilies,” speak about this scripture. His song and the words within brought tremendous peace to my soul when I needed it most. Remember, when all seems lost, God provides a way, even if we can’t see it at the time.
Have faith that life holds on
Most importantly, as evidenced by the tiny saplings in Yellowstone National Park, it is important to have faith that life holds on. During the heat of my trial I reminded myself of the phrase, “This too shall pass.” We are stronger than we think. As I sat in a picnic area in Yellowstone with my own children, I enjoyed the shade of the newly grown trees. I reflected on the fallen ones but instead of mourning their loss, simply felt gratitude. Because some things take time, I’ve waited for over two years to write this post. Yes, some wounds need time to heal and while we do eventually heal, remnants of the past are still there, like burnt sentinels standing the test of time. Yet, we do get better. No, not just better. Stronger. We emerge like a tiny plant that has burst to life after a fire, the heat being necessary for us to open up and grow.
In conclusion, I echo the words of country songwriter and singer, Beth Nielson Chapman,
“Life holds on
Given the slightest chance
For the week and the strong
Life holds on”
While I certainly don’t know everything and I don’t always understand why some things happen in our lives, I do know that we can find beauty from ashes and the oil of joy for mourning (Isaiah 61:3). We can find joy in the journey. I am grateful for the lessons I learned in Yellowstone National Park. After all these years, in spite of the destruction, it is apparent to me that life holds on, and with time, beauty rises from the ashes stronger than before.
Thank you for reading this post and for sharing my joyful journey with me!
Until next time!
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