Wildland Fire History — Are Your Bags Packed?

Peggy Dolinich, Interpretive Specialist, Rocky Mountain Region

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

My husband, a doctor, laughed when, on August 31, 1988, I called him at the hospital to tell him that there was an interpretive emergency. You see, he has always joked with me that some day I too would receive a sudden telephone call, as he often does, summoning me to assist in a lifesaving interpretive event. In all seriousness, the telephone call that I received from Deputy Regional Director Jack Neckels was no joke. All summer, I, as most Americans, had been tuned into the news, listening to the reports of destruction in Yellowstone National Park. As the fires raged throughout the park, the staff was overwhelmed trying to cope with the unprecedented media invasion. Recruits were being drafted left and right. As I had worked at Yellowstone for three glorious seasons, I was somewhat familiar with the park and therefore a good candidate to help assist in the massive public information effort. I was going to Yellowstone!

In 1975, in order to receive my recreation and park degree from Pennsylvania State University, I was required to do an internship. Luckily, I was able to set up my internship at Yellowstone. Ironically, the main project I worked on at Yellowstone during the spring of 1975 was fire interpretation! To learn about fire, the park sent me to a training course in Missoula, Montana. All I can remember about the course was the fact that it was me and thirty men. In addition to this training, the park scientists and resource managers were very instructive. The result of all my effort was a “temporary” exhibit entitled The Natural Role of Fire In Yellowstone displayed at the Old Faithful Visitor Center for more than one year. I also put together a “canned” slide show on fire .

The telephone call on August 31 came as I was preparing for a dinner party that night at my house. Jack Neckels asked if my bags were packed. Of course they were, for I was expecting to go to Fossil Butte National Monument the following Monday. That's what I thought! Jack stated that my help was needed in the Yellowstone Public Affairs Office, and I should prepare to go to Yellowstone the next day. Needless to say, my mind was not on dinner that night.

It was amazing how everything and everyone worked to get me to Yellowstone on such short notice. This opportunity made me feel excited and elated. I was going to have a chance to witness what I considered one ofthe greatest natural events in my lifetime.

For the first several days in the park, I saw no flames-just smoke. I found that like all the visitors and reporters, I, too, wanted to see the flames. During this time, I was stationed at the road closure at Tower Junction. I believe that one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career took place while standing out there. In a vehicle, a couple with their two young children stopped at the barricade. The woman and her daughter got out of the car and approached me. After the mother asked me about the road status, she told me that her little girl was sad that all the animals were getting incinerated. “Oh boy, I thought, the typical ‘Bambi’ syndrome.” I looked at this distraught little girl and explained in very simple terms to her that all the animals weren't dying, and that they would be all right. The child beamed a great big smile. Her mother proceeded to throw her arms around me. “Now,” she said, “my little girl will have a good time in Yellowstone.” As I later learned, the family was on vacation from Washington, DC, and the father was on the Taiwanese consular staff.

On September 7, I was surrounded by the flames I had sought. The fire storm I experienced at Old Faithful was both awesome and terrifying. I am not ashamed to say that I deployed, but did not have to use, my fire shelter. My brief experience at Yellowstone during the fires of 1988 is one that I will never forget. As I wrote in a memorandum to Superintendent Bob Barbee after I returned to Denver, I know I personally got more out of the experience than I could have ever contributed.

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017