looking back on 1988 Yellowstone fires

A bull elk surveys a burned area.

Twenty-five years ago this week, the Yellowstone fires hit their peak. Nearly 800,000 acres, or 36 percent of the park, burned that summer in a series of blazes, some caused by humans and others by storms. Winds of up to 80 mph fanned the flames, creating a conflagration beyond control.

Aug. 20, 1988, was dubbed “Black Saturday,” when the fires doubled in size, consuming more acres than all other fires in the park’s history combined.

Last year, when the Little Horsethief Fire burned up the back of Snow King and east Jackson was under an evacuation advisory, residents got a taste of fear. But watching those flames lick at the ridge above Cache Creek pales in comparison to firsthand accounts of the Yellowstone blazes.

The late Theo Meiners landed on one of the firefighting support crews in the summer of 1988 and kept a journal of his experiences. Focus Productions published excerpts in Jackson Hole Skier magazine that winter and has re-posted them for the 25th anniversary. The short essay is worth a read.

Of the Mink Creek Fire in the Teton Wilderness, Meiners wrote:

By mid-July winds had whipped this conflagration into gargantuan proportions; a column of smoke rose to over 30,000 feet, visible from Salt Lake City. The Black Rock Ranger Station became a base camp city of 1,200 firefighters. There was every kind of helicopter imaginable. Cargo planes and bombers were everywhere. The FAA even sent out flight controllers. This was war.

Military firefighters head to buses at the northeast entrance.

While on the Huck Fire, which started Aug. 20 after a tree fell on a power line near Flagg Ranch, Meiners wrote:

Firefighters are a breed unto themselves. I saw men and women, their faces lined with grime and fatigue, moving into the flames to extinguish them with just a pick and shovel. It’s dangerous and backbreaking work, dragging on around the clock. In a strange contrast, they are experienced campers and leave little trace of their presence in the wilderness. This really helped in keeping the delicate ecosystem from being trashed by thousands of firefighters.

Later, from Bailey Meadows:

The smoke was getting worse as the day progressed. Equipment was arriving as the camp was under construction. Crews were marching in, herding the fire along the way. After dinner the wind became horrific, blowing embers onto us from a mile away. Trees were being consumed in seconds, exploding into fireballs. In an hour we were staring into a wall of flames a hundred and fifty feet high!

Evacuate!

At 10 p.m., 107 dog-tired men and women spent the night marching six miles through fires raging on all sides. It proved to be a very long night, and an unforgettable experience.

North Fork Fire approaches the Old Faithful complex on Sept. 7, 1988.

The Yellowstone fires of 1988 burned until snow fell Sept. 11. The federal government spent $120 million ($230 million in today’s dollars) to combat the blazes, and some 25,000 firefighting personnel took part, including 6,000 from the military. Smoke reportedly colored sunrises as far away as Oklahoma.

The largest fire, the North Fork Fire, started when a man cutting firewood in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest west of the park threw a cigarette butt. The fire burned 423,000 acres and nearly torched the Old Faithful complex.

Montana ordered an evacuation of Cooke City and banned all nonessential outdoor activity beyond cities and towns, including hiking, hunting, picnicking and camping. West Yellowstone and Gardiner also were threatened.

Northeast entrance station covered in foam on Sept. 4, 1988.

On Sept. 7, an arm of the North Fork Fire swept through the Old Faithful area. Crews were able to save the historic inn, but the heat was so intense that it melted tires and blew out windshields of vehicles in the vicinity. At one point or another, every visitor complex in the park was evacuated (sometimes multiple times), and on Sept. 8, the entire park was closed to non-emergency personnel.

Nearly 250 fires burned in the region that summer. The drought was called the worst since 1934; barge traffic was restricted on the Mississippi River because of low water. Of the 51 major fires that affected the park, nine were started by humans and 42 by lightning. Some of the fires ignited in June but smoldered and did not flare up till later in summer. Fires that started outside the park accounted for 63 percent of the total acreage burned.

A bison crosses in front of fire trucks during the conflagration.

Remarkably, only about 300 large mammals died as a direct result of the fires, according to the park, including 246 elk, nine bison, four mule deer and two moose. (Many of these facts can be found in this handy park publication.)

Prior to 1988, the previous largest fire in the park’s history was the Heart Lake Fire of 1931, which burned 18,000 acres. Scientists say the last major fire on the scale of the 1988 blazes occurred in the 1700s.

Firefighter Gillian Bowser works a small fire near Lava Creek.

The Green Knoll Fire of 2001, which burned south of Wilson and forced evacuation of the Crescent H and Indian Paintbrush subdivisions, was pretty intense, and certainly last September had its scary moments. But nothing we’ve seen since 1988 compares to that infamous summer.

(Photos by National Park Service; click to enlarge and view as slide show)

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Posted under Environment, Media

5 Comments so far

  1. PJO August 25, 2013 6:23 pm

    Greatest thing to ever happen to Yellowstone.

  2. Yukon Cornelius August 26, 2013 6:27 am

    Great stuff Jim. Really interesting read

  3. Looking Forward August 26, 2013 6:37 am

    Pictures via link

    The blaze now pushing into Yosemite, only 134,000 acres, looks all too familiar.

  4. joe August 26, 2013 10:09 am

    Droughts too have multiyear and longer variability. Instrumental data indicate that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the 1950s drought were the most widespread twentieth-century droughts in the United States, while tree ring data indicate that the megadroughts over the twelfth century exceeded anything in the twentieth century in both spatial extent and duration.

  5. KB September 10, 2013 11:11 am

    Climb the Thunderer trail near Pebble Creek to the overlook of Cache Creek drainage. The juxtaposition of dense old growth forest on the north slope versus the still sterile south side is sobering indeed.

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