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."
"Part of the controversy in my mind, too, was that the park service was trying to send out a dual message," says Jeff Henry, a seasonal ranger of 11 years who had been reassigned to take photos of the Yellowstone fires for the park's archives. "They were saying officially that the fires were a good thing, cleaning out old growth in the forest and making room for new life. On the other hand, they were saying they were doing all that they could do to stop these beneficial phenomena. It confused the public, it confused the media and it probably confused the politicians too."
On Aug. 2, the Fan Fire in the northwest corner of Yellowstone threatened to burn across the park boundary and onto private land owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant. The flames, fought by some 1,500 firefighters, never made it that far.
Bader continued to travel the park, bouncing from new crew to new crew. His only escape came during a single night in Bozeman, when he got drunk and went to see the movie Full Metal Jacket—not the best choice when you're stressed out from fighting fires, he admits. "But my mind was never off it, because you could see the big clouds of smoke from Bozeman," he says. "I just had an attraction to it. I wanted to be in it. I didn't want to be away. I didn't want to miss anything."
In mid-August, Bader finally landed back in his old district at Norris. Just in time for Black Saturday.
Everything that could burn
Bader woke up around 5 a.m. on Aug. 20, threw on his Nomex and wolfed down a quick breakfast. Mornings often meant briefings with crew bosses to discuss tactics for the day, and Bader had a feeling he knew what his priority for the day would be: Defend the historic Norris Museum, a stone-and-log building with a domed, angular roof that has inspired park service architecture since its construction in 1929. The North Fork Fire had remained fairly active the night before, and spot fires were already forming in nearby meadows. But before the defense of the Norris Museum could begin, Bader and others had to evacuate the Norris campground—a task they'd done the previous day only to have park officials order them to reopen the site.
"I was a little nervous," Bader says. "It was like, 'Man, this is stupid. Why are these people out here? We told headquarters this fire is going to hit this village flat-on, and they made us re-open it.' Then we had to evacuate it under fire, which is the worst thing you can do."
Bader remembers flocks of people running to their vehicles as flames grew all around.
Jeff Henry, who was living near Madison Junction that summer, arrived at the Norris complex around 9 a.m., camera in hand. He figured the "hot action" for the day would happen at the head of the North Fork Fire, an instinct informed by his experience from previous work near Yellowstone fires in 1979 and 1981. Burning conditions in '88 were, by Henry's account, "off the charts." Firefighters were already removing trees from around the museum, and the wind was starting to pick up. As crews busied themselves clearing fuel in advance of the fire, Bader recalls one woman turning to him and saying, "I didn't join the National Park Service so I could cut down trees." The approaching flames were double, sometimes triple the height of the lodgepoles.
Geyser basins are typically devoid of fuel, and there was little in Norris beyond upturned stumps, clusters of lodgepole and the odd bush. But Henry felt like the very air itself was on fire. Flames 200 feet or higher danced at the tree line less than a football field away. The fires were so hot that burning pines toppled, or blew down before they even ignited. Sparks and embers flew through the thickening smoke, driven by winds that, as the day progressed, reached as high as 60 miles per hour.
"The air was so full of sparks and embers that anything that was burnable out there in the geyser basin was torched," Henry says.
For Bader, the fumes were the worst. The sky would completely black out, and he'd find himself in the middle of a cloud of toxic carbon. Bader always wore a bandana around his neck, which he would pull over his face to keep out the larger chunks of ash. Bader's crew had an engine parked next to the museum, and firefighters on the roof were continuously soaking the structure with hoses. Bader says it was like being in a movie, and at one point the engine boss shouted through the smog, "Here it comes." In the midst of a firestorm, Bader noted with a mixture of awe and dismay, "everything that could burn was on fire."
"Imagine a bunch of logs scattered around a parking lot and they're all on fire," Bader says. "It was kind of bizarre."
Henry shot several photos of Bader during the siege, despite Bader's protests. Henry told him he'd probably want a memento when the summer was finally over.
Bader's not sure when he got any sleep that night. He probably took "a two-hour nap" at some point, he says before consulting another keepsake—his old fire notebooks, which chronicle his crew's nearly 45-hour fight to save the Norris Museum. Wildfire tends to lay down at night, calmed by humidity and a drop in temperature. The North Fork was no different as Bader stayed awake through the end of what, in the coming days, would be dubbed "Black Saturday."
"I looked out around the junction, and it's surrounded by forested mountains and big hills," Bader says. "In every direction, a 360-degree arch, it just looked like there were thousands of little campfires. It was really beautiful."
Cook 'er from the inside out
Twelve miles away at Canyon Village, Missoula retiree Ron Scharfe was well into his first few weeks fighting the fires. His wife had answered a phone call at their Grant Creek home in late July inquiring whether their son Pat, a wildland firefighter, was available for duty in Yellowstone. Pat had taken off for a vacation in Oregon, and Scharfe offered to take his place. At age 61, Scharfe had performed the arduous step test at the Missoula Smokejumper Center and qualified for his red card. When the woman filing the paperwork asked for his age, he says, "I asked her, 'Would you believe 51?'"
Even today, Scharfe exudes the energy of a much younger man. He does have a bad hip, he says, but that'll happen when you spend 22 years putting out fires and saving lives with the Chicago Fire Department. His living room is a shrine not only to those old-timey days of firefighting"we rode on the back of the truck, not in the cab," he says—but to his experiences in World War II. Scharfe fudged his age back then too, and at 16 landed on Iwo Jima under intense gunfire, watching men die all around him. The Yellowstone fires are relegated to a crowded shelf on a bookcase by the door, where newspaper clippings and a copy of "The Hot Shot's Prayer" are tucked into the pages of a photo-heavy 20-year fire retrospective.
The flare-ups of Black Saturday saw Scharfe defending structures in Canyon Village, namely the large peak-roofed Canyon Lodge. It was his first time fighting wildfires, an experience he felt was "easier" than the structure fires he'd faced with the Chicago Fire Department. "Structure fires are tougher fires than forest fires, I think," Scharfe says. "We'd go into factories, we'd go into buildings, you wouldn't know where the hell you were at. But out here, you can see where you're at."
Scharfe watched as crews positioned themselves in front of the lodge, darting out to douse embers as they fell to the ground. The inferno was bearing down on them fast, Scharfe recalls, and the explosions from the burning lodgepoles "was like a bunch of freight trains coming together." The lodge was wrapped and covered in foam, but Scharfe noted that the building's massive two-story windows still left it vulnerable to fire.
"I saw that darn window there, and I thought, 'Well, that sucker's going to blast right through those windows and cook 'er from the inside out," Scharfe says. "So I told the fire boss there, I said, 'You have to set up a water curtain out in front there.' He just looked at me."
Scharfe proceeded to explain the theory. By training two hoses out and in front of the building, the crews could create mist that would envelope their position and cool the air. The fire, he said, would blow right past them.
"The fire boss looks at me for a second, then he says, 'Go make it happen.'"
Scharfe dashed over to the crew and began barking out directions. Firefighters redirected their hoses, and the water curtain quickly surrounded them in mist. The blaze swept past without harming the building.
"It worked real neat," Scharfe says. "So the fire boss asks me, 'Rondo, what can I do for you?' I told him to put me on the hottest hot shot crew in the park."
Within days, Scharfe says he was "busting my hump" with the Wyoming Hot Shots. His age attracted attention, not only from the young men and women on other crews but also from the media. ABC News' "20/20" did a segment on Scharfe shortly after Black Saturday, focusing on his status among much younger firefighters.
More than 152,900 acres burned throughout Yellowstone that Aug. 20, nearly doubling the collective size of the park's fires that summer. Grant Village was evacuated a second time, and crews on the Clover-Mist Fire fought to hold back the flames from a safety zone, their emergency fire shelters at the ready. Rich Jehle, an interpretive ranger stationed in West Yellowstone, later recorded his Black Saturday memories for the National Park Service as well. According to Jehle's story, it was his one day off in weeks, and he'd risen early to go fly fishing near Mammoth. On the drive back, roads through Norris and Grant Village were closed. "I finally arrived home at midnight—where my boss sent me right back out to patrol the West entrance road," Jehle wrote. "That night, the hillside south of the road was glowing with a million embers for as far as I could see up or down the river."
Two days later, with Yellowstone's firefighter reserves depleted and its employees exhausted from continuous 12- to 16-hour days, a U.S. Army battalion arrived to help relieve civilian personnel.
Four packs a day
As news of Black Saturday spread, pressure to contain the fires ramped up exponentially. That's when the finger-pointing and the name-calling really began, Bader says. "People demanded that heads roll." It seemed to Bader that people didn't have proper respect for the park's main mission to defend historic structures. The other stuff was tried, he says, and didn't work.
"Black Saturday just kind of blew the lid off everything," he says. "After that, it was President Reagan on the phone, governors and senators on fact-finding tours. The inquisition was underway before the fires were even out. That was a pretty tough way to go about your business."
From any vantage point, full containment was impossible. The park had 9,000 firefighters working simultaneously at one point, and still Bader felt there was no stopping the flames. You could flank the fire, he says. You couldn't stay ahead of it. Strong winds and the heat generated by the fires propelled burning pinecones and other fuel for miles ahead of the fire line. Most of those working the fires knew that only an act of nature—rain or snow—could finally turn the tide. As officials struggled to meet the demands of politicians and the public, crews on the ground were asking themselves one question: Where would the fires go next?
Bader ended up defending a cluster of government buildings near Norris Junction, right on the banks of the Gibbons River. The cabins were staff housing—his own included—and everyone struggled to gather their belongings and park their vehicles in relative safety. Bader instructed the crews to set up pumps by the river and stretch hoses around the entire perimeter of the complex. They even burned a nearby field in advance of the North Fork's growth. "But then the fire moved east and got into the blowdown and headed straight for Canyon Junction," he says.
Canyon Village was another developed area west of Norris, and tourists were everywhere as the North Fork blaze bore down. Bader, newly assigned as a principle fire monitor and resource advisor to the Class I Overhead Team, warned the fire boss there of the chaotic evacuation of the Norris campground. In advance of the North Fork's spread, roughly 360 visitors were evacuated from the Canyon Village area. Mark McCutcheon, the sub-district ranger for Canyon at the time, would later compose an end-of-season appraisal of Bader's performance based largely on his contribution to the defense of Norris and Canyon. "His services and experience in wildland fire management made the difference in our ability to conduct an organized evacuation of the sub-district and not lose one building in both areas," McCutcheon wrote.
Harrowing stories began to circulate from other fires in the park in late August. Firefighters were warned that, at the smokiest times, simply breathing was the equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. Bader confesses that "my left lung hasn't been the same since."
"There were things that happened that I heard over the radio, like fire crews getting trapped down in the woods, really worried, scared they weren't going to get out," Bader says. "People were yelling at them to keep calm, to get together, think it through, get out. It just put a whole new spin on everything that was going on down there."
On Sept. 7, the fires finally reached the Old Faithful Inn, one of Yellowstone's most fabled buildings. It was another dry, windy day, and Henry had an inkling that something big was about to go down. He drove the 18 miles from his home near Madison Junction to Old Faithful and found a perch on the inn's roof. Flames dominated the horizon, some as tall as 400 feet, Henry says. Huge balls of gasified fuel were shooting out ahead of the fire line, creating explosions as big as basketball arenas. Trees were igniting well before the fire ever reached them. The crowns of the flames would roll forward on the wind, Henry says, only to be sucked back into the ground draft of the fire. The effect was like gigantic ocean breakers.
The park service had shut down the inn, but the road and viewing platforms were still open to visitors.
"When I looked down the other side of the building toward Old Faithful Geyser, there were quite a few tourists down there snapping pictures of the geyser with their Instamatics, oblivious to what was approaching," Henry says. "Then the firestorm hit. I think the people who were at Old Faithful that day are some of the few people in the world who have seen such a firestorm up close and lived to tell about it."
Crews had managed to fix a faulty sprinkler system on the inn's exterior that very morning, and water was running off the eaves. That didn't stop the roof from catching. Henry watched as several hotel employees put out a start with a fire extinguisher. As hard as the crews were fighting, however, Henry was convinced that the complex was going to be enveloped and "a lot of people were going to die." Henry looked around the area, trying to figure out his course of action if the flames came too close.
"My plan at Old Faithful, specifically, was to go out into the geyser basins, which are broad, barren plains of silica," Henry says. "There's a river that flows through the center of the geyser basins—the Firehole River—and I had visions of going out and literally getting in the river."
The inn was saved, but a number of other buildings in the complex burned down. On the northern edge of the park, officials declared martial law in Cooke City. Montana Gov. Ted Schwinden chose Sept. 7 to announce a statewide ban on all nonessential outdoor recreation.
Not every post-Black Saturday story was quite so fraught. Scharfe laughs when he remembers an assignment he had driving supplies to the Firehole area. Most of the roads were closed, and he found himself on a dirt track surrounded on all sides by fire.
"The flames are, like, right out the window," Scharfe says. "It's just a little dirt road, and it is cranking, man. Really, really rolling. And I see this copper coming with his lights toward me. He pulls right in front of me, stops and says, 'Get the hell out of here! You can't get through there. I'm just lucky I got through.' So I turned that thing around. I was thinking the paint was blistering on the truck."
By Sept. 10, residents and employees in Mammoth were evacuated. The next day, it snowed nearly three inches throughout the park. Bader remembers throwing a huge party in one of the maintenance shacks at Norris, complete with a banner that said "Snow." Park officials began demobilizing fire camps on Sept. 12, making sure to keep some crews around for mop-up work.
"It was real deflating," Bader says. "It was anti-climactic. The thrill was gone in some ways. There was a lot left to do. ... So much of our district, over 100,000 acres of our subdistrict alone, burned. I got after it right away. No time to lose."
Bader fought the fires from July 21 to Sept. 29 with just one day off. His firefighting timecards show he worked a total of 432.5 hours on fire-specific assignments—not counting shift breaks or his regular ranger duties like directing traffic and patrolling the park's roads.
Sprouts in the ash
A total of 51 fires swept through Yellowstone between June and November, 1988. The final tally of the burn was 793,880 acres. An estimated 300 animals perished, including nine bison and two moose. The price tag for firefighting efforts broke nationwide records at $120 million. Despite several close calls, only two people died—one pilot and one firefighter from the Bureau of Land Management.
Public perception held that the park was irrevocably damaged, and that no one would want to visit again. But even as early as September 1988, grass was peeking through the ash near the Norris Museum. The resin packed inside lodgepole pinecones had melted under extreme heat, as nature intended, releasing the seeds and allowing them to spread across the forest floor. At the time, Bader says, some wondered if the fires had simply been too much all at once.
"I went on a backcountry patrol to cut trees off the trail, take inventory of sites and so forth, and I walked through one area that had burned really heavily," Bader says. "I was in ash about eight or 10 inches deep, this fine powdered ash. There was nothing green in sight for a long ways and I thought, 'Oh my god, I can't believe this.' But I've seen pictures from the same area, and only three weeks later there was already grass sprouting all over out of that ash."
The following summer, despite fears that Yellowstone was ruined, park officials recorded 2.6 million visitors—the highest visitation rate for the 1980s.
The political fallout was intense. Agencies began reexamining their fire policies, spurred by a fact-finding mission launched by President Ronald Reagan in Yellowstone while the fires were still burning. Bader says that was part of the "post-fire hangover," and the constant arguments that broke out during and after the summer of '88 "dampened my enthusiasm for going back." Despite McCutcheon's glowing appraisal and recommendation that Bader be promoted to a position as a resource management supervisor, Bader didn't return to Yellowstone the following summer. Instead, he took a job as executive director for the newly founded Alliance for the Wild Rockies. Bader turned his experience on the Yellowstone fires into a call for widespread governmental change. Specifically, he's raised the issue of forming a permanent federal Fire Command Corps to more effectively launch united efforts to fight wildfires.
"In some ways it brought people together," Bader says of the '88 fires. He feels the severity of the summer taught governmental agencies like the Park Service and the Forest Service that they need to band together in this era of drier summers, longer fire seasons and tighter budgets. "Nobody can sail alone," he says.
Henry still lives just outside the park, and frequents many of the sites he photographed during the summer fires. The forest is coming back, he says. Even five years after the blaze, lodgepole saplings had sprouted in thick fields across much of the old burn. Twenty-five years later, most are more than six feet tall, he says. Newcomers to certain areas of the park might not even recognize that the forest burned that recently. Nature took its course in '88, he says, and Yellowstone is now growing anew. Tracking the regeneration of the forest inspired Henry to put together a book, The Year Yellowstone Burned, which is due out next spring. Henry says he wouldn't have missed shooting the fires "for all the tea in China."
"It makes me wish I could live a lot longer than I'm going to live," he adds, "because I'd love to continue to watch the progression."
Scharfe has returned several times, too, though he says he steers clear of discussions on the fire policy controversy. The Yellowstone fires tend to occupy less of prominent space in his mind. Given his military service and years with the Chicago Fire Department, he says he'd already lived a pretty full life by age 61.
"It's a young man's game, for sure," he says of fighting wildfires. "But you'd bust your hump with the Pulaskis, stretch a lot of line, do a lot of back burns. It was a good experience."
Bader doesn't have the dreams nearly as often anymore. They've faded even as he's traveled to Yellowstone to watch the regrowth. At the time, he called Yellowstone "the Cecil B. DeMille of forest fires. You know, the guy that had the cast of thousands?" Now it's an experience he finds difficult to share with those who weren't there, and a defining moment in his own life.
"You felt like you were a part of something," Bader says. "I've testified in front of Congress on wilderness and a lot of other stuff. I've been on national TV, on CNN. But you can never really explain [the Yellowstone fires] to people. I think some people understand it, but people who weren't there might have a hard time understanding why it was so important."