Under Fire

fire pics

Managing fires as large as those that swept through Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1988 required firefighting crews from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The crews successfully defended the Old Faithful Inn, far left. Photos (left to right) courtesy Jeff Henry, Jim Peaco, Jeff Henry.

By Rocky Barker
Forest Magazine, Spring 2006

In the late summer of 1988, the fires in Yellowstone National Park dominated the news media. As the nation watched, millions of acres surrounding Old Faithful burned in what appeared to be a national tragedy. Almost two decades later, environmental writer Rocky Barker has chronicled the details of the Yellowstone fires and their aftermath—events that reshaped the national debate about fire and its place in the ecosystem—in his book, Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America. In the following excerpt, Barker introduces us to the scene at Yellowstone on the day fire almost overcame Old Faithful.

Prologue: September 7, 1988. It was still dark when the first sleepy-eyed guests appeared in the cathedral lobby of the Old Faithful Inn. They lined up for coffee from two large silver cylinders. Next to the stone fireplace, a sign shaped like a clock with magnetic numbers read: “Next eruption: 6:20 a.m., plus or minus 10 minutes.” Chatting in French, German and various accents of English, these early risers migrated from the inn onto the deserted boardwalk, which snaked south a hundred yards and circled the smoking crater. They were hoping to catch sight of the famous geyser in its most natural state, with the colorful sunrise as backdrop. A few wisps of smoke hung at eye level, but the sky was denim blue. Old Faithful is one of the nation’s most popular natural attractions. Twenty-five percent of Americans will visit the area sometime in their lives, and every year nearly three million people witness its column of superheated water rise 180 feet into the air.

Old Faithful is the iconic symbol of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, established in 1872. For most people, a trip to Yellowstone is a pilgrimage wrapped in memories of family vacations, going back generations. The geyser is surrounded by boardwalks, camera shops, ice cream stands, general stores, two hotels and acres of paved parking lots. Across a barren landscape of white volcanic crust sits the venerable Old Faithful Inn. Completed in 1904 and copied throughout the National Park System, it is one of the world’s largest log structures, at seventy-nine feet high, 800 feet long, and with nearly 400 rooms. Its tapestry of lodgepole pine beams, native rhyolite rock and gnarled wood railings fits perfectly into Yellowstone’s natural setting.

September 7, 1988, was not a typical morning in paradise, however. Shortly after 7 a.m., a dozen bellmen fanned out across the inn, knocking on doors and telling the guests who were still in their rooms that they had to leave immediately. Less than five miles to the west, the North Fork fire, named for the little creek near where a logger’s cigarette started it, was stirring again. The blaze had already consumed more than 200,000 acres of the 2.2-million-acre park and had threatened Old Faithful once before, in July. But now, with a patchwork of fire covering an area larger than the state of Delaware in and around the park, firefighters could no longer hold the line. As the humidity dropped through the morning, the blaze would grow from a series of smoldering ground fires into a racing crown fire bearing down on Old Faithful. Tour buses were lining up to evacuate not only guests, but the Old Faithful village’s seasonal workers as well.

This was just the scene that park managers had been dreading all summer as dozens of fires burned through sections of the park. The fires that lightning had started in June had been allowed to burn until mid-July. By then high winds had spread the blazes across the park, forcing officials to move tourists out of visitor villages on Yellowstone Lake and adjacent to its famous Grand Canyon thirty miles northeast of Old Faithful. On what later would be called “Black Saturday,” 165,000 acres burned in the park within a twenty-four-hour period. Giant mushroom-shaped clouds rose into the atmosphere, making it seem as if the area were under nuclear attack. National Park Service officials had called in more than 9,400 firefighters, the largest firefighting force ever assembled to date in one place. And now, on September 7, Old Faithful, the crown jewel of Yellowstone and the park system, lay directly in the path of the inferno.

The orange sunset from the night before had been reminiscent of one of the great nineteenth-century paintings of Thomas Moran, the Hudson River School painter whose work depicting the region influenced Congress to declare Yellowstone a national treasure. Smoke mingling with the geyser’s steam created a scene that was both eerie and beautiful. But the clear blue morning was unexpected. It was as if the visitors, the workers and the firefighters were caught in the eye of a storm.

A herd of television satellite trucks moved into the parking lot that morning beginning at 9 a.m., preparing to send images of the fire out live for the evening news. Since late July the national media had swarmed to the park to report on a forest fire like none seen for generations.

Not since 1910 had forest fires threatened such a large swath of the American West. Now the American public was being haltingly introduced to an important and long-standing debate within the science and conservation community over the role of fire in forests. In the years immediately running up to 1988 this debate had expanded into a larger discussion about the need to protect and restore natural processes over large landscapes worldwide. Yellowstone had become the focus of this debate, returning it to the center of conservation policy as it had been at the dawn of the movement in the late nineteenth century. But the complexities and long-term importance of the issue were lost in the disturbing video of the nation’s sacred national park burning up.

More than 1,000 workers and guests were evacuated by noon. But, incredibly, no sooner did they leave than 1,200 new visitors were allowed to stream in to watch Old Faithful. Under pressure from Senators Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee had kept the park open. The senators and Barbee were hoping that the rain and cooler weather that usually arrived in early September would moderate the fires. Instead, the fires were generating their own weather, sucking the oxygen from the air and producing gale-force winds. Giant convection clouds would collapse into the fire cores, creating furnaces that would blow over the landscape.

Firefighters were already setting up hoses around the inn and digging fire lines along the area’s perimeter. They were aided by 120 U.S. Army troops who had spent several days clearing away natural kindling near offices, cabins, shops and dormitories to reduce their flammability when the fire came.

This wasn’t the first time the army had come galloping to the park’s rescue. In fact, the army had played a pivotal role in the initial preservation of Yellowstone and, more surprisingly, in the evolution of the nation’s conservation policies. The force behind the army’s little-known formative role was Civil War General Phil Sheridan. This unlikely conservation pioneer was best known for his daring and brutal leadership of Union troops during the bloody last days of the war. After the war he used the same fierce tactics to bring American Indian tribes to heel, nearly sending the bison on which they depended into extinction.

Yet a chance meeting in 1870 with a mountain man familiar with the wonders of Yellowstone turned the hunter and former ornithologist into one of the park’s leading advocates. Sheridan sent army escorts on the explorations that led Congress to protect the region from development. Later, he fought the Northern Pacific Railroad’s effort to monopolize the park. He called for expansion of its boundaries to include the entire habitat of the park’s big game, leading a movement for what was then called “Greater Yellowstone.” When Congress cut off all Yellowstone funding and was prepared to end its preservation, Sheridan sent in the cavalry. On August 20, 1886, Moses Harris—awarded a Medal of Honor for his role in Sheridan’s Civil War campaign—led troops into the park, where forest fires had been raging for months. Captain Harris ordered his men to battle the flames, beginning the federal government’s role in forest fire control.

It was Harris and his successors at Yellowstone who developed the firefighting strategies and tactics that were used in 1988 and are still used today. The army system called for coordinated fire prevention efforts, a series of fire lookouts and lightning-quick response to fire outbreaks. Army rangers also introduced the idea of public campgrounds to control visitors’ campfires. The army’s early success in firefighting convinced a National Academy of Sciences panel in 1897 to recommend expanding the role of the federal government in preservation of public lands. Thanks in no small part to the army’s success, more than 600 million acres of wildlands remain today in the public domain. Conservation of land and federal control of it became one and the same in the minds of many reformers. But the soldiers’ example also convinced managers they could control fire by eliminating it from the forest. On September 7, Park Superintendent Barbee and other fire managers knew the fire that time, however, was no longer in their control. All they could hope to do was protect the public and save places like the inn.

At noon, three giant clouds of smoke could be seen rising above the tree line as a finger of the North Fork fire churned itself into action. For the first time that day, dark smoke drifted over the geyser basin. Though they had taken the precaution of evacuating the inn, fire officials had at first been confident they would have another day before an assault on Old Faithful took place, but now they knew the fire was soon upon them.

Shortly after 3 p.m. a sparse crowd began filling the benches around the geyser. Steam puffed out of the geyser hole, the familiar smell of rotten eggs in the air. With a dull roar, the column of water rose intermittently until it reached its full height at exactly 3:30 p.m. It spread into a cloud of droplets and steam, forming a brief rainbow, and then splashed to the ground. As the geyser’s waters trickled over the white crust, ash began to rain down from the sky. Off to the west, an air tanker came in low and dropped a slurry of magenta retardant on a hillside less than a mile west of the geyser. Sharp tongues of flame appeared out of the black smoke as the North Fork fire crested the western ridge.

In the parking lot, the last of the seasonal employees were sitting on the roof of a bus that was going to take them to safety. Most were shaggy-haired college kids in T-shirts and shorts, guzzling beer as if they were at a Grateful Dead concert. When the flames shot above the southwestern tree line, they cheered wildly, and the fire roared back like a tornado.

Dennis Bungarz, the U.S. Forest Service fire boss, reacted quite differently to the sight. He was in charge of the 1,200 firefighters battling fires in the area from Old Faithful to West Yellowstone. He opened the trunk of his car, pulled out a protective fire shelter, and clipped it on his belt. The shelter was a metallic tent he could hide under in the event the fire overran him. Bungarz knew his team wasn’t winning. He wanted to be prepared for the worst.

At the moment, it seemed the fire might skirt the southern edge of the geyser basin and miss all of Old Faithful’s 400 buildings. Fire crews began watering down the historic Hamilton General Store and the gas station on the southern edge of the resort. A newly installed sprinkler system shot water over the inn’s cedar shake roof. In the distance, firefighters moved up the southern ridge to start a backfire. But they abandoned the idea when it became clear that a wind shift would trap them between the main fire and their back burn.

Then the wind did shift and pick up speed, the smoky head of the fire advancing straight for the geyser. Wind gusts of eighty miles per hour began pulling leaves and pine needles into the fire’s core, sucking all the oxygen out of the air. Anyone close to the fire began to choke.

The firestorm struck terror into everyone in its path. It was only 4:15 p.m., but a smoky darkness had descended on the basin, and embers the size of bowling balls tumbled through the parking lots.

Jack Ward Thomas, an elk biologist with the Forest Service, had come to Old Faithful to witness preparations for fighting the fire. The gruff Texan was often the lone advocate for wildlife conservation in a room full of foresters, working in an agency focused on cutting timber instead of managing nature. Over the next four years he would lead a team of scientists whose reports on the endangered northern spotted owl would all but end the harvest of old-growth trees in national forests. In 1993, President Bill Clinton tapped him for the job of Forest Service chief, where, as its leader, he would put into place a management plan expanding on Sheridan’s notion of a Greater Yellowstone. His plan would make preserving habitat, water quality and the relationships among soil, plants and animals as important as meeting human needs.

When it came to fighting forest fires, though, Thomas was out of his element. He’d dug a few fire lines in his career, but his experience was limited. Little did he know that fires and fire policy would steer his future as he would reshape the future of public land management. Yellowstone’s 1988 fires would be only the first of more than a decade of giant fires that would force the nation to rethink its ideas about controlling nature. Six years later, Thomas would find himself standing at the base of Storm King Mountain in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, waiting for word on fourteen dead firefighters, several under his command, wondering if putting men and women in front of such blazes made any sense. When the firestorm hit Old Faithful, however, he was flat on his stomach trying to survive.

At park headquarters in Mammoth Hot Springs, thirty-five miles north of Old Faithful, Yellowstone’s managers and scientists were facing a different kind of firestorm. Ecologist Don Despain, the man most responsible for creating Yellowstone’s natural fire policy, was evacuating his family. The policy encouraged managers to allow fires to burn when started by lightning and was at the heart of the National Park Service’s twenty-year-old policy for restoring natural processes to the parks. Earlier that summer Despain had predicted that the fires would grow no larger than 40,000 acres. Now they approached 1 million. The nation’s top fire behaviorists had thought that any fire in Yellowstone would either run out of fuel or be extinguished by rain by the end of August, and they had based their forecasts on Despain’s research.

In the weeks leading up to September 7, Despain, Barbee and National Park Service Director William Penn Mott endured the harshest criticism of their lives. They were accused of not doing enough to stop the fires because they had allowed the fires to burn, as recommended by Despain. Despain’s words, “Burn, baby, burn,” taken out of context, were plastered across the front page of the Denver Post in August as evidence that park officials favored burning down all of Yellowstone’s forests. Residents of West Yellowstone had raised a banner calling the fire a “Barbee-que,” and the Billings Gazette ran a cartoon with burning teddy bears called “Barbee Dolls.”

Barbee, a former army officer, never took the criticism personally. In full gray and green uniform, he personified the National Park Service image of professionalism. Even if he couldn’t control the fires, the press, or the public’s reaction, he had learned how to keep his critics at bay, as long as he could protect Old Faithful. He knew that Yellowstone’s forests, rangelands and animals had all evolved in the context of periodic fires. Restoring fire to the park would thus help restore and protect its ecological health. This idea had been gaining ground in recent decades, inspired in part by the work of Aldo Leopold, himself a reformed product of the fire control fraternity who developed an overarching ecological view of the land and what was needed for its long-term health. Barbee and others began experimenting with controlled burning in the 1960s to restore periodic fire to western forests, where it had been largely eliminated by the national policy of suppression first instituted by the army in this very location. Barbee and the scientists who supported the natural-fire view found themselves fighting a long, and still strong, tradition of fire suppression policy, however. Smokey Bear, perhaps the most effective advertising symbol ever created, had been emphasizing the need to stop forest fires for nearly fifty years. Meanwhile, the modern environmental movement, born in the late 1960s, was transforming the idea of conservation. The new movement was in part inspired by Leopold, who advocated a land ethic based on the idea that we are all ultimately part of a larger community -not just of each other but of plants, animals and even soil, and by others who argued that human attempts to dominate nature could well have a dark underside.

By the 1980s, the effects and limits of human control over nature were becoming ever more apparent. Dams were killing off entire runs of salmon. Rivers diverted into channels were destroying wetlands’ ability to absorb floodwaters. Despite discussion of these consequences, the public still viewed forest fires as different. Managers clung to the belief that these destructive events could be controlled if enough people and materials were brought to bear. Battling forest fires was like going into an all-out war against a foreign invader.

Nowhere were these clashes of values over the control of nature more apparent than in Yellowstone, perhaps the best-known international symbol of preservation values. Barbee and Despain were implementing a new philosophy to preserve the natural ecological processes with as little human interference as possible. Yet they discovered that the desire to protect scenic nature was so strong that few people were willing to let go. The fires of 1988 tested America’s ideas about wilderness, about fire, and about our relationship to nature. The sweep of environmental history had returned to the place where federal land preservation was born out of fire. Now, with millions of Americans watching live as Old Faithful burned, the fate of a century of nature protection dating back to the days of Phil Sheridan was on the line. The fate of the inn and Robert Barbee’s values had become inexorably tied.

The remarkable journey that led from the Civil War to Old Faithful in 1988 and on to today began on the stage road to Helena, Montana, with the chance meeting of Phil Sheridan and a crusty old mountain man. Conservation’s series of events, achievements, and grassroots movements would lead in and out of Yellowstone for more than one hundred years, tempered by fires and shaped by the conflicts of both friends and foes.