YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - Hell rode in on the wind the morning of Aug. 20, 1988.
For weeks, firefighters in Yellowstone had been slugging it out with huge blazes in every corner of the park, struggling just to keep the infernos from grinding through more of the timbered landscape.
On the night of Aug. 19, winds died down and temperatures dropped, allowing some of the fires to lie down a little. But the next morning, high winds brought them dancing to life again.
Soon, fires throughout the park were burning hard and hot, fanned by gale-force winds that sent flames 200 feet in the air. Every major fire in and around Yellowstone went on a major run - some chewing furiously across 10 miles - and new fires seemed to start everywhere firefighters looked.
"We knew it was going to be one of those days that, if you'll pardon my French, was going to kick our ass," says Rick Gale, who was one of two area commanders on the fires.
Over the course of 24 hours, the fires consumed a staggering 165,000 acres - growing by more than 50 percent in a single day. It was a stunning display that awed even the most seasoned firefighters.
A record day in the midst of a record fire season, "Black Saturday," as it was soon dubbed, was a not-so-subtle signal that man would never defeat the fires that year. Indeed, it changed how the fires would be fought - or not fought - for the rest of the season.
Gale, who retired in January 2002 and now lives in Boise, remembers telling higher-ups that fighting the fires head-on was futile. The best option was to play defense, protect buildings and people, and otherwise stay out of the way.
"We were saying, 'Folks, this is crazy. We're not doing any good,' " Gale says. "In those kinds of conditions, all the firefighting resources in the free world wouldn't make a bit of difference."
Someone more superstitious might have foreseen disaster that day.
Seventy-eight years earlier, during the terrible fire year of 1910, more than 3 million acres burned in Idaho and Montana on Aug. 20 and 21.
In the "Big Blowup," as it was called, a firestorm of unstoppable, hurricane-force winds torched the Bitterroot Mountains. Towns burned down, millions of dollars in commercial timber was lost and 85 people died, including 78 firefighters.
But for Phil Perkins, Yellowstone's assistant fire management officer in 1988, the early morning of Aug. 20, 1988, seemed like any other that summer.
He had taken his wife to Chico Hot Springs the night before to celebrate her birthday. As a tradeoff for taking part of the evening off, he had to come in at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to prepare for a briefing a few hours later.
At dawn, the winds started kicking up, sometimes in sustained blows of 30 to 40 mph. Soon, gusts were measured at 70 mph.
That morning, Perkins flew over the Storm Creek fire in the northeastern corner of the park. Until then, the fire had burned only 5,500 acres since it started in mid-June.
Winds had whipped the fire into frenzy, sending swirling smoke columns 20,000 feet into the air. Perkins was stunned. He saw the same kinds of columns at the nearby Hellroaring fire.
"I'd never seen anything like that before at 9 in the a.m.," Perkins recalls.
|LARRY MAYER/Gazette staff Fire engulfs a tree near Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park on “Black Saturday” in 1988, when winds gusted to 80 mph, and the fires sent flames 200 feet into the air.|
Soon, 80 mph winds were rekindling every fire in the area and blowing down trees, leaving ready-to-burn timber strewn across the forest floor. Fires burned so fiercely that they created their own wind and flew through treetops and felled trees with an astonishing appetite.
There had been, and would be, other days that summer when the temperatures were hot and the humidity was in the single digits. But no day ever matched Aug. 20 for the persistent and powerful winds.
"It was unbelievable," Perkins says.
No part of Yellowstone or the surrounding area was unaffected by the winds' wrath on Black Saturday.
Just south of Yellowstone, wind pushed a tree across a power line, igniting a fire in a thick lodgepole pine forest littered with downed timber.
Within two hours, the Huck fire had burned 4,000 acres, forced the evacuation of the Flagg Ranch and was roaring toward Yellowstone.
Along Yellowstone's eastern boundary, the Clover-Mist fire tore through 55,000 acres, nearly twice the amount that had burned in Yellowstone since 1972.
As the fire raced toward Silver Gate and Cooke City, it belched thick plumes of smoke and dropped burning, wind-tossed embers into Cooke City.
About 10 miles away, the Storm Creek fire, which had been smoldering for weeks, suddenly came to life, burning across 10 miles of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in just three hours. Amazingly, the fire ballooned to 23,600 acres against prevailing winds. Some speculated that the fire was pulled to the south by winds generated by the Clover-Mist fire.
Farther west, the Hellroaring fire marched one mile every hour for eight hours, adding 30,000 acres to the day's tally.
And to the south and west, the enormous North Fork fire, started by a tossed cigarette outside the park's boundary, was taking huge bites out of the forest en route to Norris Geyser Basin.
The fires not only grew, but were showing some of the most extreme and explosive fire behavior experts had ever seen.
Embers and sparks were spit out of one fire only to land a mile or more away to ignite a new blaze. Fire lines and fire breaks, staples in firefighting techniques, were repeatedly breached as flames jumped across roads, rivers, canyons and anything else in the way. Whirling convection columns full of heat and smoke towered 25,000 feet in the air and deposited ash 60 miles away.
Although the strong winds grounded most airplanes and helicopters over Yellowstone, Gale flew over the North Fork fire that afternoon on a return trip from Jackson.
He remembers seeing another helicopter silhouetted against one of the smoke columns.
"It sort of reminded me of a piss-ant in front of the Empire State building," he says.
The ferocity and unpredictability of the fires on Black Saturday caused chaos in the park.
|BOB ZELLAR/Gazette Staff A cow elk dozes among lodgepole pines that grew after the 1988 fires near the blowdown area.|
Roads closed, tourists were separated from their hotels and some firefighters were forced to flee the advancing flames.
Superintendent Bob Barbee attended a meeting in West Yellowstone that morning and later found his route back to the park's Mammoth headquarters closed by fire. On a roundabout route, he found himself face to face with more fire. Later that day, he ended up at West Thumb, helping rangers evacuate tourists as the Red-Shoshone fire marched toward them.
Meanwhile, fire bosses put out the call for more help.
More top-level fire teams were dispatched to the Clover Mist, Hunter, Storm Creek and Hellroaring fires. Dozens of 20-man crews were requested along with additional helicopters and airplanes.
Managers met until after midnight in West Yellowstone discussing what to do next and whether Yellowstone should be closed to visitors.
Until then, park officials had fought off pressure to close the gates.
"The easiest thing to have done would have been to close the park," says Dan Sholly, who was Yellowstone's chief ranger at the time. "But no, we wanted to provide an opportunity for visitors to see what was happening."
While a few people had experienced inconvenience by getting separated from their cars, Sholly says the decision to keep the park open had paid off for most of the summer.
"A great majority had an incredible experience," he says.
But Black Saturday finally made the case. Managers decided to close the interior of the park, allowing access to Old Faithful and very limited travel elsewhere.
The day was also a turning point in firefighters' perception of the fires that year.
"It was a real clear wake-up call that hey, we are not putting out these fires," Gale says. "We weren't going to get them out until we got a break in the conditions."
Fire managers soon adopted a new policy for the fires: control the perimeters, protect buildings and property, hold the lines that had already been established and quit fighting the fire internally.
"I often said the best thing we could've done was to send everyone home, do some protection of buildings and then come back when the weather changes," Gale says.
What firefighters didn't know at the end of Black Saturday was that conditions would worsen before they got better.
More than 250,000 acres would be blackened in three days while the military was called in, fires burned unchecked, humidity hovered dangerously low and no rain fell.
Firefighters could no more get a handle on the blazes burning in and around Yellowstone than they could hold onto the furious winds of that August day.