It was July 14, 1988, twenty years ago, and some weeks into what would become the most violent fire season in the recorded history of the park. Dan Sholly, head of the law enforcement division and a close advisor to park superintendent Bob Barbee, had until this date been ready to let the fires burn; at least eight individual fires were now eating their way through the backcountry. But he had another worry. Vice President George H.W. Bush, now the Republican presidential candidate, was scheduled to visit the park and spend time in the backcountry. Sholly had already arranged a cabin for him. And now the Clover fire had blown up.
Forest fires do not just burn trees. They may crawl along at a low to moderate intensity through the understory of a forest, burning fallen branches, fallen needles, and grass. But conditions in their environment--often a matter of weather, wind, and terrain--may conspire to set the flames burning in the canopy of the forest, in a "crown fire." Such a fire can spread with great speed, ripping through a forest with an aggressiveness that will pose a threat to anyone who gets in its way. Firefighters will say that the burn has "gone on a run" or has "blown up." The Clover fire, in the mountains of the eastern half of the park, had just done so, roaring from 300 acres to a wind-driven 4700 acres in a single day.
Sholly was hard charger, an aggressive commander who led from the front. He took off in a helicopter to see the fire for himself. Clearly, the vice president would have to go elsewhere, but Sholly was also worried about a historic backcountry cabin in Calfee Creek. He had his pilot set the helicopter down, and he, along with two other park service employees, cleared the area around the cabin of flammables. Then the flames bore down on them. Sending the helicopter away, Sholly and his people rode out the storm in individual fire shelters, fiberglass-and-aluminum sheets that could withstand 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, intended to be used only in the direst emergency. "It sounded as if there was a swirling vortex right above our backs," Sholly recalled later, "sucking more and more oxygen into an endless funnel, like a black twister in a farm child's nightmare." The cabin, at least, was saved.
But as of that day, the National Park Service officials who ran Yellowstone began to have second thoughts about their let-burn policy. "Sholly charged back to Mammoth after his ordeal and called together Yellowstone's fire committee, the team of managers who carried out the park's fire policy," writes Rocky Barker, a reporter for the Idaho Statesman who covered the fires. "He wasn't ready to give up on the natural fire program even after nearly becoming its first victim." But he wanted to begin fighting those blazes that were most threatening to the park's developed areas, and Superintendent Barbee agreed, sending crews in to fight five of the eight fires. Oddly enough, the fire that had nearly killed his chief ranger was allowed to burn.
Until this date, the Park Service had let the forests burn because that was policy, and had been since 1972. The National Park Service, in Yellowstone and elsewhere, had helped lead the country in a reevaluation of our attitude toward wildfire.
During the nineteenth century, Americans thought of wildfire as an act of God at worst, one that they could often take charge of and use for their own benefit. Native peoples used fire for a variety of purposes, to expand grasslands, to control insects, to drive game, and so on. Early settlers did much the same things. But by the turn of the twentieth century, such placid acceptance of fire had come to grate on Progressive Era sensibilities. No less an authority than John Muir decried the way that herders and loggers set the Western forests alight: "all through the summer months," he wrote in 1901, "over most of the mountain regions, the smoke of mill and forest fires is so thick and black that no sunbeam can pierce it. The whole sky, with clouds, sun, moon, and stars, is simply blotted out." The result was a land of "dismal smoke and barbarous, melancholy ruins." Fire was evil, a view the general public shared after decades of publicity. Just ask Smokey the Bear.
But among the revolutions of the 1960s came one in fire ecology, too. Scientists came to understand that fire had a role to play in the ecosystems where it occurred, that North American forests had evolved to cope with and even thrive on it. In places like Yellowstone, essentially a high and dry plateau, it was the most important force recycling dead vegetation and releasing its nutrients back into the soil. The dominant tree in Yellowstone is the lodgepole pine (named because it once supported lodges for the Plains tribes); this species is dependent on fire, which opens its cones and scatters its seeds. And wherever it occurs, fire thins the flora and makes a large-scale conflagration less likely.
Almost since it had been a park, fire had been suppressed in Yellowstone; whether or not this factor worsened the situation in 1988, it certainly did not help. On July 22, a woodcutter in the Targhee National Forest, outside the park, dropped a cigarette into the duff and set off what became known as the North Fork fire. The fire crossed the park boundary, and grew and grew. In 1988, and in the years since, critics have charged that if the National Park Service had fought the fires from the start, and fought them more aggressively, the summer would not have developed into the great holocaust that it did. What might have been is a matter of pure speculation, but the North Fork fire does settle the question for the weeks and months that followed Dan Sholly's stand at the Calfee Creek cabin. The North Fork fire was fought aggressively from the start—and it became the biggest blaze of the summer. The firefighters' assault made no difference. Nature was now in charge.
Winds drove the flames on daily, and daily, the water content of the forests dropped as drought conditions worsened. Witnesses to the summer all speak of the way that the fires would die down with the cooling and increased humidity of nighttime, then surge in the morning until the flames seemed to be the work of atomic bombs. That analogy comes up over and over: it was as if the park were under nuclear attack. Stacks of smoke, evocatively mushroom-shaped, were visible from miles away. Given the drama, the park inevitably found itself a frequent presence on the news, especially television news, on the big three networks and the new upstart CNN. It was on TV constantly when the fire season accelerated into a crescendo.
On August 20, which would afterward be known as Black Saturday, the flames consumed 150,000 acres in what amounted to a firestorm. And it was not over yet. In early September, the North Fork fire, grown prodigiously, made a run at Old Faithful; the photograph above was taken as the flames bore down on the village on September 7. With winds peaking at 80 MPH, the fire was not going to be stopped in the woods; air tankers tried dropping retardant, but the effort was hopeless. Firefighters concentrated instead on a largely successful effort to protect buildings in the area. Only nature itself would actually put out the fires. They were still sputtering as late as November, when they finally went out in the autumn snow.
How do I know all this? These events have been affecting my life for years. I first saw Yellowstone in the aftermath. That store in the photo above is where we used to buy our beer and harder stuff (it makes me woozy just to look at); the fire is burning close to where we lived. The Old Faithful area as I first knew it was like the inside of an old barbecue. The soil, particularly on ridgelines, was often still black, the needles on the trees all brown in death. We learned not to lean against trees: the bark would dye your flesh charcoal gray, and sometimes the tree would just give way and topple over. But then I went away for a few years, and when I came back, I found a transformed landscape. The burned forests that I had known were all gone, brought down by the weather and their own decay. The dead needles and black bark vanished. In their place were forests of bright green conifers, dense as a lawn. I've written about it before (here, for instance). The effect is invigorating.
The park service caught a great deal of flak for allowing the park to be "destroyed," but I think that even the fire experts on the NPS staff did not fully understand the extent to which Yellowstone is on its own schedule. Its pace is radically slower than the manic press of human desires. In the end--it took a long time--Yellowstone became the best advertisement for natural fire in the world.