Twenty-five years have passed since summer 1988, when wildfire swept through 36 percent of Yellowstone National Park's 2.2 million acres, and Missoula local Mike Bader still dreams of fighting the blaze. The visions come to him less often now, but they're always the same: an open field, a crew of firefighters and a towering curtain of flame. The tempo of his voice speeds up in the telling, and his face—once bearded, now covered in graying stubble—wrinkles into an excited smile. It's as if he'd love nothing more than to be there again, to revisit a time when he was part of a 25,000-person effort to contain the biggest fire season in the Northern Rockies since the Great Burn of 1910.
"I was real lucky, I felt, to be there, to be a witness," Bader says, flipping through one of the many firefighting journals he's held onto for all these years. "It was like seeing a tornado, or any of nature's great acts."
Bader was working his fifth summer in Yellowstone as a ranger with the National Park Service, collaborating with grizzly research biologists and managing various resources in the Norris area. He knew the district intimately, from the direction of the winds to the concentration and condition of the fuels carpeting the forest floor. He felt a loyalty to Norris and a pride in its beauty that kept his enthusiasm high as the usual host of tourists rolled in.
Lightning touched down in the Custer National Forest on June 14, just outside the northeast corner of Yellowstone. That strike sparked one of the first wildfires of the summer, the Storm Creek Fire. Low snowpack and poor rains in May had left the forest the equivalent of a tinder box. Storm Creek sent billows of smoke into the air, but few hailed it as a harbinger of worse things to come.
On June 23, lightning again ignited the forest, this time starting the Shoshone Fire in the southern portion of the park. Shoshone was joined a week later by the Red Fire, and a week after that by the Mist Fire just inside Yellowstone's eastern border. Forecasts held no hope of rain. On July 11, lighting started two more fires, one to the east and one just outside the park's southern border.
Then, on July 14, three park employees were caught in a firestorm as a 300-acre blaze called the Clover Fire made a surprise 4,000-acre run in just a few hours. The trio deployed two emergency fire shelters, narrowly escaping danger. Park officials issued their first fire maps the following day, marking a transition from letting the fires burn in the backcountry to actively suppressing them. The 1988 firefighting season in Yellowstone had begun.
As strong winds fanned the flames of eight established fires, Bader found himself pulled from his district. He spent weeks bouncing from one assignment to the next, working as a radio dispatcher at Mammoth, conducting aerial recon of the Continental Fire, defending the historic Trail Creek Cabin as a crew boss on the Mink Creek Fire. His experience with wildfires in northern California the previous summer—when he and roughly 105 other Yellowstone employees were temporarily loaned out—made him a valued asset in coordinating with overhead crews. But his desire to return to Norris never waned. Between lengthy days of firefighting, he filled his free time monitoring grizzly populations and continuing other projects on behalf of his home district.
Bader's first sense of how big the fires would get came when he was attached to an engine crew defending Grant Village, a development constructed on the western shore of Yellowstone Lake in the 1970s. When Bader arrived on July 23, there were nearly 100 fire engines stacked up along the roads. There was talk of using bulldozers to create fire breaks. The entire scene was chaos.
"That was the first clue that, hey, now we've got our hands full," Bader says. "These aren't just burning in the backcountry."
The specter of normalcy
In the days leading up to the Shoshone Fire's July 23 run at Grant Village, 4,000 people were evacuated from the area. Trees were cut down around each structure. Buildings were soaked with water or flame-retardant foam. Fire burned toward nearby campgrounds, and the first Unified Area Command of the summer—a two-person team made up of experts from the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service—was established to oversee command of firefighting efforts.
Shoshone wound up bypassing Grant Village and turning north on July 26. But for Bader, the seriousness of the weeks and months to come sank in. He requested to be sent back to his old district, the area he knew best.
"It didn't work," Bader says. "I got sent off on another fire somewhere else."
Bader was sent on missions throughout the park in the first weeks of August. On Dunraven Pass, he found himself relaying reports from spotters on the Clover-Mist Fire. He watched new fires start, only to see them swallowed up by bigger fires before they could even be named. Near Tower Village, he witnessed a ground fire sweep across five miles of sagebrush in the middle of the day. The smoke turned the sky pitch black. He saw whole mountainsides burn, saw towering crown fires 300 feet high.
"A couple of days out fighting fires seems like weeks," he says. "But then after weeks, it seems like years."
Despite the evacuation of Grant Village, much of Yellowstone remained open to tourists. Select roads were shut down as fire burned over and past them. Visitors were cautioned to avoid certain areas. The smoke grew so thick at times that park staff posted road signs asking people to use their headlights during the day. For the most part, however, the country's first national park continued to draw outsiders by the thousands. Those working in the park that summer felt Yellowstone's administration was trying hard to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Tourists were gradually joined by flocks of reporters from various news outlets as the fires grew in size. Satellite trucks lined parking lots. Cable television crews hauled equipment from fire line to fire line, decked out in yellow fire-resistant Nomex shirts. The perception spread by the media seemed to be one of impending ruin, of failed policy and a grave delay in response from the park service.
Donald Hodel, then-U.S. Secretary of the Interior, tried to calm the growing national outrage by appearing at the Old Faithful Inn July 27 to declare his support for the park's "let it burn" policy. Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee—nicknamed "Barbee-que" by the media and one West Yellowstone motel manager—repeatedly defended the initial decision not to fight the flames that summer, telling the Associated Press that "when push comes to shove, nature wins in the national parks."
Bader and other park employees felt a sense of mounting frustration. Anyone familiar with the situation knew that Yellowstone officials had held off fighting the fires to let nature run its course. Critics didn't understand the role fire was meant to play in the forest's ecology, Bader says, and no one could have foreseen how quickly the flames would spread. "It was like a category five hurricane. You might see a category one coming, but then boom, it goes up to a category five."