Nature's great act 

Missoula firefighters recall the summer Yellowstone burned

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"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.

click to enlarge Mike Bader was working his fifth summer as a ranger in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin when fires erupted in 1988. Today, he still has numerous mementos and looks back on the experience as a time when he felt “part of something.” - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Mike Bader was working his fifth summer as a ranger in Yellowstone’s Norris Geyser Basin when fires erupted in 1988. Today, he still has numerous mementos and looks back on the experience as a time when he felt “part of something.”

"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?

click to enlarge Jeff Henry snapped this photo of Mike Bader on Aug. 21, 1988—almost a full day into Bader’s fight to save the historic Norris Museum. - JEFF HENRY, NPS
  • Jeff Henry, NPS
  • Jeff Henry snapped this photo of Mike Bader on Aug. 21, 1988—almost a full day into Bader’s fight to save the historic Norris Museum.

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.

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