The hydroxyl free radical (OH) is the major oxidizing chemical in the atmosphere, destroying about 3.7 petagrams (Pg) of trace gases each year, including many gases involved in ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and urban air pollution. Measurements of 1,1,1-trichloroethane (methyl chloroform, CH3CCl3), which reacts with OH, provide the most accurate method currently utilized for determining the global behavior of OH. We report that CH3CCl3 levels rose steadily from 1978 to reach a maximum in 1992 and have since decreased rapidly to levels in 2004 about 30% of the levels when measurements began in 1978. Analysis of these observations shows that global average OH levels had a small maximum around 1989 and a larger minimum around 1998, with OH concentrations in 2003 being comparable to those in 1979. This post-1998 recovery of OH reported here contrasts with the situation 4 years ago when reported OH was decreasing. The 1997–1999 OH minimum coincides with, and is likely caused by, major global wildfires and an intense El Nino event at this time.