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'Yellowstone on fire': A nightmare that wouldn't end

From the Complete coverage: The 1988 Yellowstone fires series
  • 13 min to read
'Yellowstone on fire': A nightmare that wouldn't end
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Editor's note: This article was originally printed as a chapter in the book "Yellowstone on Fire," printed by The Billings Gazette and written by staff members of the newspapers.

In the wake of Black Saturday, forest fires swept unchecked across the greater Yellowstone area as firefighters mounted a massive effort. Firefighters from as far away as Hawaii and Florida were called to the Yellowstone high country. The military was called in to supplement civilian crews and the first U.S. Army infantry troops arrived on Aug. 22.

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A firefighter hoses down the roof of the Norris Museum during the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.

Weather was the firefighters' nemesis, as constant winds sent wildfires sprinting across the parched landscape. Forest Service rangers manned helicopters and rode horses into the backcountry to evacuate people from the path of approaching fire.

Inversions became a daily occurrence, shrouding the park and gateway communities in a blanket of acrid smoke each morning. Adding to the atmosphere of gloom, convoys of civilian and Army firefighters shuttled across the park. With the troops moving to the battle lines and constant helicopter and airplane traffic, Yellowstone more closely resembled a war zone than the nation's premier national park.

As tourism dwindled, the park's concessionaire closed the Lake Hotel. Fire did not threaten the Lake development yet, but thick smoke blocked the view across Yellowstone Lake. Tourists went to bed breathing the smoke and awoke each morning breathing an even stronger stench. Park officials warned tourists with respiratory problems to reconsider their vacation plans.

Like the pall of smoke which covered the park, a sense of frustration and fatalism hung in the air. The massive firefighting effort seemed futile in the face of nature's rage.

"It's a nightmare that won't end," one Park Service employee said.

Fires spread despite natural barriers or sparse fuels. Daily fire advances were measured in miles and thousands of acres. The North Fork fire had swept past Norris and its 200-foot-tall flames lapped at the edge of Canyon Village, forcing the evacuation of tourists. Cooke City and Silver Gate, at the park's northeastern corner, were spared by the Clover-Mist fire, but the Storm Creek fire to the north loomed over the tiny mountain communities.

Fire officials compared the fires to the "Big Blowup" of 1910, when a giant wildfire burned 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana forests in 48 hours.

No significant rain had fallen on the Yellowstone area since early July, and the fire conditions worsened. Throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, major fires burned. In Yellowstone, the number of firefighters approached 9,000, but the Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, wanted as many as 1,000 of them and some aircraft to fight other fires. At an Aug. 26 meeting of fire bosses for the 11 major fires burning in the Yellowstone area, forest supervisors and park officials argued that they could not spare crews.

Ultimately, more military, supervised by experienced firefighters, were assigned to relieve civilian crews in Yellowstone.

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U.S. Army pilots and mechanics preflight Blackhawk helicopters during the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.

The extreme burning conditions prompted a significant change in strategy. Firefighters' priorities shifted to containing three small fires which already were under control. New fires were aggressively attacked. Efforts to stop the larger fires head-on became secondary to protecting communities. Backcountry fires that did not threaten buildings were allowed to run their courses.

The changes in strategy marked a change in outlook. Fire bosses no longer were optimistic that they could contain the blazes. Fire-behavior specialists offered worst-case scenarios and made the first projections that the fires could spread to more than 1 million acres — half of Yellowstone National Park.

The moisture level of some logs fell to 7 percent — nearly half that of kiln-dried lumber. Brush, grasses and twigs were measured at 3 percent and 5 percent moisture. At between 8 percent and 12 percent moisture, fires burn freely. Young vegetation burned with ease, something never before witnessed in the region.

Fire officials were disturbed that fuel moisture levels did not rise at night. Normally, as temperature drops at night the relative humidity rises and the forest absorbs moisture from the air. Fires usually burn most intensely during the late afternoon, when fuel is dried by the sun. During Yellowstone's summer of fire, the fuel moisture levels remained low around the clock. Crown fires at midnight left an ominous orange glow in the sky. Firefighting was suspended at night because of the danger.

Dry cold fronts periodically passed through the area, preceded by two days of high winds. Radical fire behavior became a daily occurrence.

Areas within Yellowstone created their own microclimates. Winds blowing southward, up the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and against the prevailing wind direction, frustrated firefighters trying to protect Canyon Village.

Nighttime downslope winds pushed the North Fork fire closer to West Yellowstone, against the daytime prevailing winds. The downslope winds, caused by the air cooling at higher elevations in the heart of Yellowstone and drifting down from the high plateau, also brought smoke that hung in the air until midday.

Smoke plumes drifting from fires on the western side of Yellowstone shaded the eastern half of the park, dropping temperatures and substantially reducing fire activity there.

On the rare still days, the fires created their own wind and expanded in all directions, sometimes breaking through fire lines that had held for weeks.

In late August, the southern flank of the North Fork fire broke over a containment line that had held for a month, and renewed its threat to Old Faithful. Although it still was eight miles away from the world-famous geyser basin, winds pushed the fire through dense forests of lodgepole pines killed by mountain bark pine beetles. Dave Poncin, incident commander of the North Fork fire, called the fire's renewed vigor "humbling" — something he hadn't seen before. By then, fire bosses were growing accustomed to expecting the unusual.

Fire behavior was so unprecedented that firefighting guidelines were rewritten. Firefighters' perceptions of forest fires changed as well. One 15,000-acre blowup across fire lines on the North Fork fire was called a "slopover." Flanks and rears of fires became fire fronts. Five- and 10-mile advances of fires in one day were predicted and expected. Fires easily jumped the gaping Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the barren Old Faithful geyser basin.

As the end of August approached, fire bosses had to lobby the command center for more resources. Commanders had to fight to keep other fires in the nation from siphoning off their men and equipment.

William Penn Mott, director of the National Park Service, toured Yellowstone and said he was surprised by the extent of the fires. They had burned 660,000 acres in the Yellowstone area, with about two-thirds of that in the national park. Fire commanders told Mott that another dry cold front would move across the area soon, sparking more wind and more extreme fire activity.

The next day high winds sent fires across containment lines again and the perimeters of fires grew to surround 20 percent of the park. The North Fork fire became so large that the commanders divided supervision of efforts against it into two camps. The northeastern half of the fire was renamed the Wolf Lake fire.

Burning south of Canyon and near Hayden Valley, in the center of Yellowstone National Park, the Wolf Lake fire jumped the Yellowstone River and began burning toward the Clover-Mist fire, which had roared across the park's eastern boundary and into the Shoshone National forest, forcing evacuation of two ranches along the Clarks Fork River.

As September approached, firefighters battled a new enemy — fatigue.

Some crews were on the fire lines for weeks with little relief. Fire bosses constantly preached safety as their crews faced danger daily. Snags — burned trees still standing — could fall quietly with no warning. Chain saws and even sharp hand tools posed dangers to the weary crews. At the end of August, no serious injuries had been reported from the firefighting effort, despite the large buildup of forces. But there were hundreds of minor injuries and smoke-related illnesses. Breathing the smoke on the front lines was like smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.

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A firefighter douses hot spots as flames approach Norris Geyser Basin during the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.

For the crews, the day's assignment often included hours of scraping the earth bare near the fires with pulaskis — firefighting tools that are half hoe and half axe. Looking much like a hiking trail, these fire lines are designed to stop a ground fire. They were ineffective in Yellowstone as the fire swept through the treetops or spotted over the lines. At one point, 400 miles of fire line were in place. When the winds came up, only 20 miles held.

The lack of success frustrated firefighters and their bosses. Poncin, the commander for the North Fork fire, had spent five weeks directing firefighters in Yellowstone. The North Fork fire grew despite his best efforts.

"You don't like to walk away from a fire with the smoke column as large as when you arrived," he said.

Residents of the region also were weary of the fire and constant smoke. Despite the massive firefighting effort, they maintained the perception that the park's "let it burn" policy still was in effect. Only a halfhearted effort was being made to extinguish the blazes, they thought.

Angry residents directed their frustration directly at Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee. He had held controversial posts in the Park Service before, but this was the first time he had been subjected to such extensive personal attacks, including one West Yellowstone motel marquee which said, "Welcome to the Barbee-que."

Some attacks came from people who operate tourism businesses and who wondered whether tourism would recover. Others reacted emotionally to fire running rampant through the magnificent landscape that held some personal attachment.

To quell the sharp criticism, top regional directors of the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service conducted a press conference during Labor Day weekend to explain the extreme fire conditions and the efforts to stop the fires. They also carried another message — another dry cold front was forecast. That would mean that another quarter million acres could burn in Yellowstone in the next three days. Their predictions soon became reality.

North Fork fire near Mammoth Hot Springs, September 7, 1988

An aerial photo shows a cloud of smoke rising from the North Fork fire in Yellowstone National Park on September 7, 1988. Mammoth Hot Springs is in the foreground.

The fire season climaxed during the first 10 days of September. Rampant flames swept across the landscape, so wide and full that avoiding towns and buildings seemed impossible. Flames swept up to, around or over nearly every development inside Yellowstone and threatened communities just outside its boundaries.

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The Clover-Mist fire, 25 miles wide and 30 miles long, swept down drainages toward cabins and ranches tucked into the forest in the Crandall Creek and Sunlight Basin areas east of the park. Downslope winds blew the North Fork fire two miles toward West Yellowstone on the night of Sept. 1, throwing an eerie orange glow in the sky above the town. Residents filled their cars with gasoline, loaded valuables and prepared to flee. The fire stopped a mile and a quarter from town.

Fire crews manning engines, many from volunteer fire departments throughout Montana and Wyoming, were assigned to protect towns and buildings from the onslaught.

On Sept. 1, a firefighter described the Storm Creek fire northeast of Yellowstone as "burning like a freight train at 9 p.m.," as it chugged toward Cooke City and Silver Gate. Two days later, the fire roared through the historic Silvertip Ranch, an exclusive, private guest ranch along Yellowstone's northern boundary. Three dozen firefighters deployed fire shelters as the blaze swept past them. Remarkably, there were no injuries and no buildings burned.

In the path of the Storm Creek fire, Cooke City and Silver Gate residents were evacuated. Bulldozers gashed a huge fire line through the forest near Yellowstone's northeast entrance in an effort to stop the blaze.

Fire bosses decided to defend the towns by waiting for favorable winds, then lighting a backfire. They calculated that a backfire would burn toward the Storm Creek fire and scorch an area that would starve the advancing inferno. Without the backburn, they feared that the Storm Creek fire could roar through the communities.

Clover-Mist fire near northeast entrance, September 4, 1988

Firefighters work on the Clover-Mist fire in Yellowstone National Park on September 4, 1988.

The backfire was lit and watched for two days. Then the wind shifted and an ember from the backfire crossed the bulldozed fire line. The wind whipped the small spot fire into a wall of flame that swept toward Silver Gate. The fire later moved north of Silver Gate and Cooke City, spreading east toward Cooke Pass and destroying several homes and cabins. Ironically, the Storm Creek fire never burned into the backfire.

On Sept. 6, the perimeters of the Yellowstone area fires exceeded 1 million acres and they still raged out of control.

"Mother Nature is making the decisions here, " one spokeswoman said.

Gary Cargill, the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain regional forester, applauded the efforts of firefighters, despite the disappointments. "They are crack firefighters who are not used to getting whipped day after day."

The firefighting effort had swollen to 9,500 people and 117 aircraft, including the Army's huge Chinook helicopters. Eleven of the nation's most experienced fire-management teams supervised the 13 named fires in the Yellowstone area. Fire danger grew so extreme in Montana that the governor banned all outdoor recreation. Smoke continued to pour out of the park, exceeding healthy levels in many gateway communities.

Meanwhile, the threat to Old Faithful loomed again. Fire that had slopped over a month-old containment line on the southern tip of the North Fork fire had marched seven miles and was within a mile of Old Faithful on the night of Sept. 6. Park officials decided to evacuate the 700 guests at the historic Old Faithful Inn the next morning. Bellhops knocked on doors and asked guests to leave in an orderly evacuation.

Old Faithful evacuation

Tourists prepare to leave as flames approach the Old Faithful Hotel during the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.

The fire burned closer throughout the next morning and early afternoon, separated from the historic geyser basin and 400-building town by only a low ridge. A huge smoke column billowed over the development as a steady stream of air tankers dropped retardant on the leading edge of the fire and helicopters dipped water buckets from a sewage treatment lagoon that had been filled with fresh water.

In midafternoon, winds picked up and the fire crested the ridge a quarter of a mile from Old Faithful. Heat radiated to the parking lot. Tourists and concessionaire employees still in the area, some approaching hysteria, were shepherded from the area by a park ranger in a patrol car.

Suddenly the wind shifted and strengthened and the fierce firestorm swept down onto Old Faithful in a matter of minutes. Firefighters assigned to protect government housing on the edge of the village had to retreat hastily from the flames. Wind blew thick, brown smoke into the village and sent glowing embers the size of golf balls skidding across the pavement.

Firestorms have rolling action, burning so intensely that the heat alone can set a building on fire. At Old Faithful, as the fire rolled in, flying embers landed on building roofs. Sixteen small cabins and a storage shed burned as firefighters dashed around the development trying to put out small fires. A deluge system was activated on the Old Faithful Inn, wetting the roof and saving the historic log hotel from being damaged. Denny Bungarz, the North Fork fire boss who often offered an optimistic outlook, got a fire shelter out of the trunk of his car during the height of the firestorm.

An ember, which apparently had flown over the village and geyser basin, landed on a hillside half a mile from the nearest fire and ignited the forest. Within a minute it swept 100 yards through the timber.

Ken Dittmer, commander for all of the fires in the Yellowstone area, said later that a wind shift of 2 or 3 degrees to the south could have meant disaster for the entire village, including the inn.

"No amount of engines or water would have made any difference. We were right on the ragged edge," he said.

Bungarz said that Old Faithful no longer was threatened by the North Fork fire — it already had burned around the area — but that the fire had thwarted all efforts to stop or slow it.

"We threw everything at that fire from Day One," he said. "We tried everything we knew of or could think of, and that fire kicked our ass from one end of the park to the other."

The same day saw intense fire activity in other areas. The Clover-Mist fire burned 13 mobile homes and a store in the Crandall Creek area east of Yellowstone, where 50 homes had been evacuated. Four buildings were burned in Cooke Pass, victims of the backfire which raged out of control. The Wolf Lake fire sent embers into Canyon Village and started a major run toward Mammoth and the park's headquarters. The threat to other towns had decreased as the fires swept around them. Protecting Mammoth, home to many park employees, became a priority.

Mammoth Hot Springs evacuation, September 10, 1988

Smoke surrounds Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park on September 10, 1988. The area was evacuated that day, but changes in weather later in the day spared the hot springs from fire.

As the fires raged, President Ronald Reagan sent members of his cabinet to Yellowstone on a fact-finding mission. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng and Undersecretary of Defense William Taft arrived with the park and the region under siege by the massive fires. Five communities along the park boundaries were evacuated and fire still burned on the outskirts of nearly every development inside the park. The cabinet officers said they were shocked by the extent of the fires. They promised more help from the military and a review of the Park Service and Forest Service fire-management policy.

The firefighting effort was costing $3 million a day and already had totaled $89 million.

When the cabinet officials arrived on Sept. 11, there was another arrival — the first significant rain since July. The next morning, snow blanketed the park with a dusting in some areas and ankle-deep in others. Firefighters finally got the break they had hoped for all summer.

For the next week, light precipitation fell on-and-off in the region, slowing the fires. U.S. Marines arrived to help with the effort. The end, it seemed, was near. But officials characterized the fires as sleeping giants that could spring back to life if the rain stopped.

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis visited the park on Sept. 16, trying to capitalize on the national attention given to the fires. Hundreds of reporters now covered the fires, in turn attracting a procession of VIPs who took fire bosses away from the fire lines for briefings.

Fall was coming to the high country and, with it, moisture and cooler temperatures which slowed the fires. On Sept. 17, fire commanders cautiously said they had turned the corner on the Yellowstone fires. For the first time in two months, talk turned to containing the blazes.

The firefighting effort tapered off quickly as crews, mostly military, worked to mop up hot spots. Of 5,500 firefighters in the region, 4,000 were army infantrymen or marines. Crews found themselves in the ironic situation of fighting to keep warm in light snow and cold rain while fighting forest fires. The fires continued to smolder on dry days, but daily advances were small.

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Soldiers from Fort Lewis try to stay warm around a small heater during a snowstorm at the Madison camp during the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.

Though safety continued to be a priority, the fires took their first life in September, killing a firefighter with a falling snag during mop-up operations. A second snag seriously injured another firefighter, and a pilot escaped injury when his helicopter crashed upside down in a lake east of Yellowstone.

Firefighters worked into late October mopping up the fires, while other crews started rehabilitation of areas scarred by firefighting. Fire crews doused the last fires in late October, ending three months of battle.

Early estimates show that 900,000 acres — about 40 percent — of Yellowstone National Park were touched by fire. About 1.3 million acres burned in the Yellowstone region. In about a third of the burned-over area, trees were untouched. Those areas would turn green in the spring.

In the greater Yellowstone area, the fires burned 3 houses, 13 mobile homes, 10 private cabins, 2 Forest Service cabins, a Park Service cabin and 18 cabins in Yellowstone that were leased or owned by the park's concessionaire.

During the $120 million effort, firefighters dug more than 850 miles of fire line by hand. Some 600 miles of that was around the North Fork fire. Bulldozers scraped an additional 137 miles of fire lines, including 32 miles in Yellowstone. More than 1.4 million gallons of retardant were dropped from aerial tankers, and helicopters dropped an estimated 10 million gallons of water. More than 18,000 hours of aircraft time were logged over the park.

As the fall storms washed the skies clear of the dreary smoke which had hung over the region for most of the late summer, park vistas began to reappear and Yellowstone seemed a much different place. Fall colors mixed with the blackened forests in a vivid contrast. The pessimistic mood that had prevailed in the region turned to optimism.

When the smoke was thick, it was difficult to assess the fire's damage. As the smoke cleared, people saw that it was not as bad as they had feared.

Many businesses in gateway communities made up , what they may have lost in tourist trade by catering to firefighters. They also saw the need to spread the word that Yellowstone was not devastated. There had been extensive burning, but the fires had not affected the geysers or wildlife, the major attractions in the park.

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