Visitors to the country's first national park can learn about the devastating fires of 1988 and then drive through the charred, blackened areas of the park - as well as the unscarred half - with more understanding of Yellowstone.
That's the hope of Betty Knight, the park's south district naturalist who directed planning and construction of a fire exhibit that opened Saturday in the visitors center at Grant Village.Public interest in the fires and their aftermath is unprecedented, Knight said.
"It was a Vietnam of forest fires," she said. "It was the first time fire was brought into people's living rooms on a steady basis."
The exhibit, she said, will show the short-term effects of the fires, from five to 25 years from now, and then explore the long-range future of Yellowstone.
The causes - extreme drought, lightning storms, the park's geography - are explained, as well as recent history of fire supression that contributed to the build-up of fuel.
"It has different views of what happened," she said. "It looks at the human response, the firefighters, the media."
Grant Village survived a seige of fire in late July last summer, although fast-running flames from the Red-Shoshone fire came within feet of staff dormitories.
Now the area is an almost surreal scene: blackened snags, or burnt trees, spotted with orange lodgepole pines that are dead but still have their needles.
However, except in the badly charred stands, there is a lush carpet of green grass growing through the soot and ash. And to the north and east, around Yellowstone Lake, there is no evidence of the fires that swept through half the mammoth park.
Knight, 44, typifies park employees who take the long view and believe the fires were, in historical terms, good developments for the park.
Yellowstone, described by early explorers as a land of fire and ice, was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions.
The geysers, hot springs and other popular features of Yellowstone show evidence of the caldron simmering underneath the 2.2 million acre park.
The fires, park scientists say, happen in cycles of several hundred years. It just happens that 1988, a year of extreme drought, was one of those times.
The new exhibit is intended to educate the public about the role of fire in Yellowstone and its eventual benefits to vegetation and wildlife.
The exhibit does not, however, address policy decisions made by park authorities that allowed many fires to burn naturally until late July, or refer to disputes between firefighters and park rangers that hampered some efforts to quell the flames until it was too late.
"We're not touching policy," said Knight, who has been with the National Park Service for 22 years. "We're trying to get across that all of Yellowstone is not the same, that it won't recover the same.
The fire exhibit was put together on a crash program, unusual for the park service that usually requires at least two years of planning on a major exhibit, she said.
Knight spent seven weeks over the winter at the park service's national planning center in Harpers Ferry, Va., then returned to the snow-covered park to supervise the project's coordination and construction.
Called "Yellowstone and Fire," the exhibit will take most visitors about 20 minutes to tour, although Knight said there is enough information available for extremely interested tourists to spend more than two hours there.
Design costs ran $16,000 and production $120,000, Knight said, not including the staff salaries and hours of overtime required.
"Normally it takes two to three years to put a big exhibit together," she said. "We've done this in five months. Other things had to go on the back burner, of course, and there was a lot of overtime, but it had to be done."
The exhibit includes huge murals of fire scenes, portraits of firefighters, a video recounting the fury of the fires and presentations about the animals and their habitat.