Wildland Fire History — A Summer to Remember

Joe Zarki, Park Ranger, Yellowstone National Park

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.

At the outset of the 1988 summer season, few Yellowstone interpreters had any inkling of what was in store for them in the coming weeks. The major concern in June was getting the season off to a good start.

Most of our thoughts on interpretive themes for the summer dealt with the wolf recovery controversy and getting a head start on 1989’s Biodiversity theme. Although it had been a dry spring, we gave little thought to fire interpretation. It would rain in July and August; it always had before.

In late June, I attended a strategy session in the Chief Ranger’s Office for coordinating efforts on the season’s first serious wildfire, the Fan Fire. Our division offered to do a roadside interpretive effort that would include walks to the fire’s trailing edge as well as through a nearby older burn. All present were concerned because it was felt that this fire could eventually grow to several thousand acres. Whoa! And since it was near the road, it would definitely attract attention and curiosity. Why, it might even generate some media coverage. Little did we know …

In early July, I was returning from days off in the Tetons and got my first good look at the Red and Shoshone fires as they started to threaten the Grant Village area. We began to station people at various roadside pullouts to answer visitor questions about the fires and scheduled extra hikes to the top of Mt Washburn, where visitors could see many of the growing number ofYellowstone fires.

In mid–July, it became evident that Yellowstone was rapidly heading towards a record fire year. A decision was made at that time to actively suppress all current and new fires in the park. Superintendent Barbee asked all park divisions to make the fires their top priority.

Interpretation took on the task of producing a daily fire map. This one–page handout was designed to give the park visitor accurate information on the spread of the fires as well as the progress of suppression efforts. For a long time, the fire maps were the only consistently accurate fire information available for park visitors.

Unfortunately, the maps were subject to misinterpretation. The early maps included a message about the role of fire in a wilderness environment. This interpretive “blurb” was soon dropped because of the widespread notion that the park wasn’t doing enough to stop the fires. In addition, we had to adjust the fill–in color of the fire areas from a solid black to a stippled pattern so that people wouldn’t think that the entire area within the fire perimeters was destroyed. People simply weren’t reading the message in bold type on each map stating that only about half the vegetation within the fire boundaries was burned.

The first evacuation ofthe Grant Village development on July 23 was a turning point in the summer. Grant Village naturalists assisted with evacuation efforts, manned barricades, and escorted reporters who were there to cover the fires (see Carol Shively’s story elsewhere in this issue).

Not long after this, the park began its great media marathon. Besides the District Naturalists and other field interpreters who were already heavily involved with media contacts, the headquarters staff began answering phones some eighteen hours daily to handle the flood of calls from around the country (more than 2000 on average) as well as the growing media interest.

Calls from the public ranged from the angry (“they oughta fire the whole damned lot of you!”), to the emotional (several people were in tears on the phone), to the concerned. We received many creative suggestions for putting out the fires. One person advocated dropping filled waterbeds out of planes onto the fires. Another thought that since there were agricultural surpluses in our country, we could drop flour on the fires, thereby not only extinguishing the flames but also propping up wholesale farm prices at the same time. One lady suggested we contact the Coast Guard since they had access to “lots of water.” As if the public fallout over the fires wasn’t bad enough already, several people actually suggested that nuclear weapons could extinguish the fires.

These calls demonstrated that while many people had only a limited conception of the scale of the fires and our objectives in suppressing them, they were nonetheless deeply moved by the neverending drama of flame and ruin being played out on the news each night. Though badly misinformed, their concern for Yellowstone was real and needed to be expressed.

Some people did more than tell us about their concern. They wanted to do something. Hundreds of people volunteered everything from their labor to fire trucks, heavy equipment, explosives, and irrigation equipment. The Loyal Order of the Moose in Los Angeles called one day to say that they had a shipment of hay to feed wildlife ready for delivery to the park; they just wanted to know where to drop it off. Eventually, special procedures were implemented for handling these volunteer offers. Though we politely, but firmly, told many people that only red–carded fire fighters were being recruited to work on the fire lines, most could not understand why we weren’t urging them to get on the first plane for Yellowstone.

As the fires and media coverage both grew more intense, our interpretive efforts began to feel the heat as well. In mid–August, park management told interpreters not to discuss fire ecology or the fires’ effects on park resources. When talking with the public and media, we were to discuss only the efforts underway to suppress the fires. Their reasoning: in the current atmosphere any attempt to talk about the role of natural fire was bound to be distorted and misunderstood. By August 26, we gave up any pretense of trying to operate our regular interpretive program. All programs were cancelled. Field interpreters were stationed at road barricades and provided media escorts around fire lines. Personnel continued to staff the phones and conduct press interviews even after Mammoth Hot Springs was evacuated in early September.

The media crush was so great that we arranged for help from several interpreters from other areas. Folks from Bandelier, Big Bend, Cabrillo, Grant–Kohrs Ranch, St Croix Scenic Riverway, and the Rocky Mountain Regional Office (see Peggy Dolonich’s article elsewhere in this issue) were all drafted into service on short notice. All were issued Nomex clothes, a hard hat, and a “shake–and–bake” fire shelter.

Even at the height of the efforts to combat the fires, it became apparent that, once the flames died down and the smoke cleared, a major public education effort would be necessary to convince everyone that Yellowstone was indeed alive and still worth seeing.

The outlines of this interpretive “Marshall Plan” began to take shape even as the flames threatened Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, and area border communities. George Robinson arranged to have a film crew from Harper’s Ferry record the history–making fires in progress. At an informal meeting of Yellowstone’s interpretive staff, we fleshed out a wide–ranging plan involving some twenty different projects. The key features of the plan include:

  • the production of a B–6 folder on fire ecology suitable for use by other parks and national forests as well as Yellowstone,
  • a museum exhibit on fire ecology for display at the Grant Village Visitor Center,
  • a 20–minute film in both 16mm and VHS format on the Yellowstone fires,
  • a three–person Fire Interpretation and Resource Education (FIRE) Team to travel to local communities making presentations on the fires to school and civic groups (see Gregg Fauth’s article elsewhere in this issue),
  • an environmental education program for schools about natural fire, and
  • a four–page color supplement on fire for the park newspaper, Yellowstone Today.

Through the tremendous energy and creativity of the Harpers Ferry Center staff, most of these items are well on their way to being completed. Others await additional funding.

Since last July, our lives here in Yellowstone have been dominated by the fires, a fact that has not changed with the arrival of winter’s snows. It’s likely that we’ll be talking about fire for a long time, and not just here in Yellowstone. The effort that all of us put into dispelling the mistaken notion that Yellowstone is dead may have a lot to do with how we manage park resources in the future.

The story of the Yellowstone fires has many important ecological lessons. Telling that story to the public, a public whose opinions are often colored by cultural biases against natural fire, may be one of the greatest challenges we will face as National Park Service interpreters.

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