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25 years later, Yellowstone still shaped by 1988 fire

By Celeste Tholen Rosenlof | Posted - Aug 17th, 2013 @ 10:10pm


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YELLOWSTONE — Twenty-five years ago, approximately 250 fires rolled through Yellowstone National Park and its surrounding areas, burning nearly 800,000 acres of park land.

On June 1, the Storm Creek Fire ignited. For weeks, the fire burned without threatening the park. By June 30, four fires were burning within or near the park. The prescribed burn policy kept firefighting at bay, allowing fuel to burn. On July 21, according to the National Parks Service, crews began suppressing all fires in the area as the Snake River Complex — a large group of fires — rapidly expanded.

For weeks, visitors continued touring the park, and Americans watched the national park and forests burn in gigantic flames on their televisions. While many expressed frustration over the prescribed burn policy, blaming it for the out-of-control flames, 25,000 firefighters wrestled with hot winds, dry lightning and the worst drought in Yellowstone history to protect towns and structures, visitors and residents. They wet and removed fuels, covered buildings in fire-retardant foam, and knocked down flames.

Though visitors were allowed in the park during the firefighting efforts of July and August, drivers had to keep headlights on during the daytime so they could see through the thick smoke. Grant Village Visitor's Center was evacuated twice.

Timeline of the 1988 fire
June 14: First fire, Storm Creek Fire, begins.
June 30: A total of four fires burn in the park.
July 21: Park begins suppressing a total of six fires.
July 22-23: North Fork, Clover and Mist fires join.
July 31: Sportsman Lake Patrol Cabin is burned by the Fan Fire.
Aug. 8-15: Shoshone, Red, and Hellroaring fires spark.
Aug. 18: Smoke is so thick drivers had to use headlights during the day.
Aug. 20: On "Black Saturday," fires double in size to more than 480,000 acres.
Aug. 22: Military reinforcements arrive, relieving tired firefighters.
Sept. 6: Officials declare a state of emergency in Cooke City.
Sept. 7: Fire rages near Old Faithful area, but the inn was saved.
Sept. 10: Mammoth residents evacuated.
Sept. 11: Rain and snowfall.
Sept. 14: Fires continue to cool, campgrounds reopen.

"I let the passengers (of my tour bus) know that we had had smoky conditions on and off for a few weeks and they need not worry," Greg Dalling, of Xanterra Parks and Resorts wrote on the National Park Services website. "But the next morning our wake-up 'knocks' were two hours early because we had to evacuate immediately. Most of the passengers beat me to the bus with luggage in hand—I think they must have slept with their clothes on!"

On Aug. 20, marked as "Black Saturday," fires doubled in size to more than 480,000 acres. Throughout that week, propelled by 60 mph winds — with gusts up to 80 mph — the fire blew across the Lewis River Canyon.

The intensity of the dry conditions and the overwhelming flames made for a mobile wildfire. Many visitors shared experiences of a fire quickly moving from a smoke cloud into view, and for former-KSL reporter Larry Lewis, it was a humbling experience.

At one point during his coverage, Lewis said he needed some flame footage for a TV story. The NPS escorted a group of about 10 news people up to a meadow where they could observe flames licking the landscape's fuel. At first, they asked if they were close enough, and if they could get closer. Within just a few minutes, however, he felt they were too close.

"It gave us a scary perspective of how scary a fire can be, not only for the firefighters, but for people covering it," Lewis said.

By the numbers
793,880 acres of Yellostone were affected

300 large mammals died as a result

  • 246 elk
  • 9 bison
  • 4 mule deer
  • 2 moose
In 1989, more than 2,600,000 people came to Yellowstone—the highest annual visitation of the 1980s.

Info: National Parks Service

Military air forces joined local crews on Aug. 22, relieving exhausted firefighters. But on Sept. 6, officials declared a state of emergency in nearby Cooke City as fires neared it. The next afternoon, a firestorm blasted the Old Faithful area. Crews managed to save the historic Old Faithful Inn, though 19 buildings in the complex were destroyed.

Finally, on Sept. 11, after months of firefighting, ¼-inch of rain and snow fell, suppressing the fires that had blended into one another, making giant balls of flame. Within a few days, campgrounds reopened, evacuation orders lifted, and smoke cleared.

Though it was catastrophic in size and economic cost — $230 million of resources were used to fight it — the fire has and continues to shape the landscape of Yellowstone National Park. Regrowth has yet to meet its former height, the park gives extensive tours of the fire's paths and the destructive fires inform park managers' decisions to prevent future fires of that magnitude.

Now a spokesperson for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Lewis said the department is working to prevent catastrophic fires in Utah. It is working to precondition forests and grounds through reseeding, prescribed livestock grazing and other measures so that crews can control a wildfire should one start. He said these measures will prevent fires like the Yellowstone Fire of 1988.

For the full interview with Lewis about his coverage of the Yellowstone Fire of 1988, watch "Sunday Edition" on KSL at 9 a.m. Sunday, or online at ksl.com.

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Celeste Tholen Rosenlof

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