When Yellowstone burned 10 years ago, the nation grieved. Would the oldest national park ever be the same?

In the hot, long summer of 1988, 10 fires blackened 1 million acres of timber, meadow, sage and grassland, a tenth of the greater Yellowstone area. The biggest firefighting effort in U.S. history failed to stop the flames - only nature could do that with rain and snow three months later.Smokey Bear taught that only you can prevent forest fires. The summer of 1988 taught that sometimes no one can prevent forest fires.

Today, bare trees still stand like burned matchsticks waiting to be blown over, but Yellowstone has bounced back. Green saplings sprout from the forest floor, and the volcanic soil bursts forth with a heavy growth of lodgepole pine, aster, elk sedge, lupine and other plant life. In another 10 years, vegetation may be 10 times as diverse as it was in 1988.

"We've had an army of scientists that have traipsed through here looking for an ecological downside, so to speak. But they haven't found it," said biologist John Varley, who directs the Yellowstone Center for Resources.

"This place was recharged," he said. "It went through a rebirth that will assure that Yellowstone will look much as it has in the last 200 to 300 years for the next 200 to 300 years."

Summer storm clouds and the lightning they bring are as much a fact of life in Yellowstone as tourists at Old Faithful. They come every year.

When storms swept across the lush meadows and mountains of Yellowstone in June 1988, the park was choked with vegetation after decades of fire suppression. A severe drought had left it dry before the storms hit.

By then, park policy had changed to allow lightning-caused fires to burn as long as they didn't threaten people or structures.

But instead of burning themselves out, as most naturally occurring fires do, the fires of 1988 took off.

The first lightning fires began in mid-June and were whipped by strong wind. By mid-July, with flames already consuming 8,600 acres and political pressure mounting, Yellowstone officials decided to fight any new fires. Within a week, crews were fighting them all.

"It was horrendous to all of us who were sitting here watching it. And it was horrendous to those people who were sitting in their apartments in New York watching the very graphic fire coverage," Var-ley said.

The finger-pointing began quickly.

"There wasn't a soul in that park that didn't know that place was a tinderbox," said Alan Simpson, the former senator who joined others in attacking Interior Department administrators.

"They knew the conditions of the forest," Simpson said in a recent interview, "and if they didn't they should have lost their jobs."

Review teams later criticized park officials for relying too much on Yellowstone's recent fire history when first confronted with the fires, without considering that they were seeing a once-a-century drought. Yellowstone suffered similar drought and fire in 1700 and the mid-1800s.

Eventually, 25,000 firefighters backed by helicopters, air tankers and heavy equipment poured into the park. Flames damaged 640 miles of trails, 167 miles of road, 73 bridges and 23 picnic areas and campgrounds. The firefighting effort cost $111.4 million.

A few people were hurt, but no one was killed. Only a handful of animals died in the fires.

Lightning caused most of the fires, although a cigarette sparked the North Fork fire outside the park. It eventually burned more than 400,000 acres and swept across the southern end of the Old Faithful complex.

"They had firefighters on it within 20 minutes of its start," said Phil Perkins, a park fire management officer. "It was already too late."

The North Fork fire destroyed 16 cabins and a barn, but it spared the Old Faithful Inn, the landmark turn-of-the-century lodge built entirely of logs and stone gathered locally.

Victories were few in the fight for the forests. Time and weather were the only effective weapons.

"On the 10th of September they had 9,000 firefighters in this park. They had about 250 fire retardant bombers and water-carrying helicopters . . . an entire air force that was doing nothing to stop the course of the fires," Varley said. "On the 11th of September one-quarter inch of rain and snow put those fires out."

In fact, the firefighting effort itself did plenty of damage. It might take decades for the scars of bulldozed fire lines to heal.

"The biggest threat to the plant community isn't the fire; it's our attempts to control the fire," park research biologist Roy Renkin said.

One of the lessons of 1988 was that fires help nourish a healthy park for plants and animals. Since 1989, authorities have been setting small controlled burns to clear away undergrowth. They also have been stressing the inevitability and necessity of fire.

"During the fires and immediately after, it certainly was a challenge to educate the public," park spokesman Cheryl Matthews said. "After all, my generation grew up with Smokey the Bear telling them fire is bad."

"It looks gorgeous after 10 years," said Marilyn Adler, a Montana tourist who watched the 1988 fires on her nightly news. She and her husband, Gary, have visited the same picnic area every year since then.

"That first year it was so barren and so black you couldn't dream it would ever grow back," she said, surrounded by a hearty blend of pine, Douglas fir and aspen. "But just look at all those beautiful saplings."