Cygnet Fire burns right in the middle of Yellowstone Park-

August 26, 2012. Though dwarfed by 100,000 acre+ Idaho fires, this has potential to grow. Started by lightning on the Park’s Central Plateau, it has now grown to about 1000 acres (1 1/2 square miles).

The Cygnet Fire burns on Yellowstone’s Central Plateau. Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park


The fire is in the backcountry about 3-4 miles south of Virginia Cascades and is sometimes causing smoky conditions over the Norris to Canyon road.  This is in a little used (by humans) area of rolling to flat topography with a lot of forested terrain.

Although the grandaddy of all fires was in Yellowstone Park and outside its boundaries in 1988, it does have some moderately large fires (2000 – 5000 acres) every 4-5 years.  In 1988 over a million acres of the 2.2 million acre park burned. Regeneration has been excellent. As elsewhere conditions for fires are now extreme in the Park.

Update Sept. 14. The Cygnet Fire has grown to just short of 4000 acres. However, it has stalled out for the time being — no growth the last several days. This coming Saturday, 9/15, has predictions of low humidity and perhaps strong winds that could stir things up. It is beginning to get below freezing most nights now and they are longer. This gives the fuel less time to dry out and to burn hard during the sunlight hours.

Cygnet Fire from the west of Yellowstone Park (Horse Butte) on Sept. 15. Copyright Dusty Roads

Update. Sept. 16. The fire is now at 4400 acres. This is from InciWeb on Saturday the 15th. ” Very low relative humidity, gusty west winds and warm temperatures combining with very dry fuels will produce optimum conditions for rapid fire spread. Increased fire and smoke activity is expected on the Cygnet and Dewdrop fires burning in the central portion of the park. These conditions will prevail until a cold front moves through the region early Sunday morning, which will bring cooler temps and possibly some much needed moisture.” [boldface ours]

As of 10 AM Sunday rains have not developed. Chance of T-storms is 30%.

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Here is an interesting map. It shows the perimeter of the Cygnet Fire when it was 2800 acres, but perhaps more interesting is the map shows the location of old forest fires in the Park by date . . . a fascinating fire history as well as a guide to places where the Cygnet Fire is unlikely to burn (due to lack of fuel).

About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

38 Responses to Yellowstone Park gets its first big fire of the year (update 9/16/12)

  1. Salle says:

    It was pretty windy most of the afternoon today, I guess it goes without saying that a fire up on a plateau at about 8,000 feet would pick up under those conditions. It was also pretty warm out, not good for those fighting fires.

  2. Mike says:

    I’ve been watching like crazy. The area is getting rain right now, thank god…from the plateau to Big Timber.

    Now if only Idaho would get some rain. Air quality was labeled as “poor” and in several cases as “dangerous” across Montana on the 15th, almost all due to the Idaho fires.

  3. Virginia says:

    We drove next to the Cygnet fire on Friday and saw the flames spreading next to the road. Smoke was brutal on my son with allergies. Also watched two grizzlies fighting over a bison carcass in Hayden Valley – quite a sight! Saturday we could see the fire clouds surging from the Southfork area – assuming it was from Cygnet.

  4. Ralph Maughan says:

    I did an update this morning. Thank you for your comments. After a week of mild haze here in Pocatello, it is a beautiful day with scattered clouds and fine air quality. Those smoke plumes can certainly ruin the day.

  5. Salle says:

    I just spoke to a friend, a few minutes ago, who said that there were dry lightning strikes out near Two Top around midnight last night. Ugh. Bet there’s new fire(s) from that. I know it would be a little early (for here) for it to snow but they’ve already had snow in Colorado this past week. It’s certainly what could be really helpful here, or a big deluge of rain. Either way, this could go on for some time, even though it now freezes at night.

    • Mike says:

      The lack of rain has been ridiculous. I’ve pushed my trip back to early October, and even then I have no idea if smoke conditions will improve.

      But it does look like Yellowstone, and the country west of it has been getting a bit of rain. I’m also seeing ice/snow in the Beartooths and Bighorns.

      • Rancher Bob says:

        You bring those bolt cutters, the trapping for fur and predators will start in October. You could also help out Montana Footloose with some classes on how to remove pets from traps with bolt cutters. Personally I would love to see you stay until wolf trapping and see you cut one free.
        Don’t forget your camp stove, no open flame fire restrictions.

      • Barb Rupers says:

        No rain here in western Oregon since early July. Over two months of no rain; the native ash, maples, willows, hawthorn, cottonwoods, and alder trees are dropping their withered leaves. It has been dry in past years; but this time it is more extreme.

  6. Craig says:

    Just got back from 6 days in Yellowstone and yes it was very smokey! I can’t believe 6 trips into the Lamar Valley and never saw a single elk. Saw a Wolf by pebble creek lots of Buffalo,Pronghorn,Big horn, Mountain Goat, Grizzly, fox and Coyote. In 35 years of going to Yellowstone every year I’ve never not seen Elk in the Lamar… how sad!
    It was a really cool site to see a Wolf and a Grizz eating a Buffalo side by side off the Yellowstone river, never seen that before. Watched them for a couple hours through the spotting scope.

    • Salle says:

      The wolf and griz interaction would have been really cool to see. I haven’t been in the park since early June, might get to go before the winter closing but not holding my breath… gas is 1/10 of a cent below $4 a gallon in the area right now.

      • Craig says:

        I wish they were closer so I could have taken pics! They were laying side by side eating no fighting.The Grizz was a good size Bear 3 or 4 years old and and the Wolf was a Big Grey. People said the day before there were 2 grizz feeding on it. Yeah gas is about 3.89 in West yellowstone 4.09 in Mammoth we spent at least $400.00 in gas for 6 days. I really went up to see the Elk Rut and was very dissapointed, they are not anywhere. A few here and there but not in there normal places.

    • Virginia says:

      We were also surprised not to see any elk in the park. Also, no elk at Mammoth – very unusual. I hope they are just up in the high country since it has been so warm.

      • timz says:

        I’m going the first weekend of Oct., and have an update.

        • Salle says:

          You’ll probably see plenty of them in October. The upper elevations are still the only places where there’s likely to be any forage for them. Everything below 7500ft is burnt to a crisp, has been most of the summer. There still won’t be much for them when they do come down lower.

          • timz says:

            Just returned, saw a lot of elk, several hugh bulls. Mostly in Lamar Valley and the Madison area. Gibbons Meadow as well.

      • Craig says:

        We saw 1 Bull and 2 cows the whole time in Mammoth. But there were a bunch in Gardiner feeding on the grass across from Best Western. We even did the Balcktail loop every day and never seen anything. Very weird!

        • Salle says:

          Climate change.

        • Ralph Maughan says:

          I’ve never seen enough Park elk to bother about in mid-September, except at Mammoth.

          This summer has been astonishingly dry, however, and the forecast is for more of the same. Thunderstorms, however, are more difficult than other weather changes to forecast beyond 4-5 days in the future.

          • timz says:

            I never seen the park like this. Dry creeks, river levels very low, just a trickle in some areas. It needs lots of snow this year.

            • Nancy says:

              You just described my area here in southwest Montana to a “t” Timz.

              The only real moisture, in quite awhile, has been from a handful of hard frosts.

              Had a bit of fall color, maybe a week? And then the cold zapped the trees (6 degrees Saturday morning) turning the leaves an ugly brown.

              Its been so dry here, elk are starting to migrate out of the area early.

              I’ve come across 3 groups trying to navigate the fences and highway in the last week and I don’t usually see them moving out til November.

              Also noticed ranchers in my area have changed tactics this fall as they bring their cattle down off public lands.

              The “round em up, head em out(Rawhide theme?) sort em out and then push em back to the ranch” approach, with lots of riders on hand to keep them moving, has been replaced with stringing them out along the road, with no real supervision, guessing to take advantage of the “free” grass along the roadsides on their way home.

              Black cows, on a dark highway at night?……recipe for disaster.

  7. Salle says:

    Good News,

    Significant rainfall this evening in the area! Could squelch the Cygnet fire or diminish it considerably. And maybe some other fires along the way.

    • Mike says:


      And according to, these rain clouds are on their way to Salmon, ID, and westward.

  8. Salle says:


    For the most part they are trending eastward and somewhat north. It looks like the divide is getting a good amount but it may not be that much in the Mustang Complex area. The Snake River Plain appears to be getting the most, but they need it too since the Treasure Valley (Twin Falls) area has been burning all summer too.

    Along the easternmost stretch of the divide between Idaho and Montana has been getting light to moderate rain most of the evening, still coming down presently. the best things that’s happened in weeks around here. My lungs are feeling better than they have in quite some time now that there’s more air than stale smoke to breathe.

    The good thing about this being sustained is that it may well be of benefit to those working on the fires over in Wyoming (Jackson Area) and maybe as far as that big fire area near Sheridan area too.


September 2012


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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