Nature's great act 

Missoula firefighters recall the summer Yellowstone burned

Page 4 of 4

"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."

click to enlarge Lodgepole pine saplings sprout near Gibbon River in August 1998, 10 years after the Yellowstone fires. - JEFF HENRY, NPS
  • Jeff Henry, NPS
  • Lodgepole pine saplings sprout near Gibbon River in August 1998, 10 years after the Yellowstone fires.

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."

click to enlarge A helicopter drops water on the Lama Fire during the summer of 1988. - NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
  • National Park Service
  • A helicopter drops water on the Lama Fire during the summer of 1988.

"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."

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