Wildland Fire History — Under the Orange Sky

Carol Shively, 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.

“Time is the great healer,“ someone once wrote. Sitting here in Yellowstone on a cold winter's day, watching the snow gently fall, it almost seems as though the fires of 1988 never happened at all. Almost…

July 22, 1988
I expected chaos at the evening program that night. Telling more than five hundred people in an amphitheater to evacuate by 9:00 am the next morning is akin to shouting “Fire!” in a theater. It didn't happen. Early the next morning, we each took our assigned places in a loop of the Grant Village Campground, systematically noting when each campsite was vacated to make certain that the entire area was cleared of visitors. At 8:45am some campers were still flipping pancakes and offering us coffee. Though there was no imminent danger, a few gentle reminders and suggestions about where they could camp convinced the stragglers to be on their way. By the time Grant Village concession managers reported that all hotel guests and employees were gone, more than 3,000 people had been evacuated with an orderly precision.

Back in the employee housing area, I heard someone say, “We have to be out by 10:00 am.” For us the mental exercise of wondering what you would take if you had only a short time to pack due to fire had become a sudden reality. While lost in thought, the defense of Grant Village had begun. The sound of chainsaws ripped through the air as fire crews started cutting down any trees that might fall and catch a building on fire. All dead and down wood was hauled away, including cords of firewood that had been carefully stacked months earlier. While pulling away from the area, I took a long look back at my apartment and wondered if it would still be there when I came back.

July 31, 1988
For everyone involved in the Yellowstone fires, there is a particular day that stands out above all the rest. For me it was July 31, the day the fire hit West Thumb.

“Jake” Jacobsen, the Operations Chief from Incident Command, closed the door of his truck and strode quickly toward me, “You better get these people out of here, the fire's getting ready to come over the hill.” Immediately, Roger Anderson and I cleared the West Thumb store of visitors and then headed down into the geyser basin-a more challenging task. Most of the visitors perceived danger was relatively near and quickly obliged us. Others, however, were reluctant to leave. I couldn't entirely blame them. They were captivated by the Hiroshima-like cloud of smoke rising to the north, the helicopters dipping low to fill their water buckets in Yellowstone Lake, the brilliant red retardant drops flashing across the sky, and a moose and her calf swimming just off the lake shore. With some effort, we were able to convince them it was wise to move on, and the area was secured. Then the wait began.

Engine crews were in place to protect the structures at West Thumb. The smoke became thicker and thicker, obscuring the sun and giving this once bright afternoon the appearance of evening. The winds that had challenged us earlier never seemed more menacing than now, blowing thirty to forty miles per hour and gusting up to sixty. Logic and reason aside, I couldn't deny a sense of impending doom.

You hear a fire before you see it. Suddenly, a tremendous wind swept through the area. I never knew a wind could be so loud. The engine crews continued to foam down the two historic structures at West Thumb, the 1925 West Thumb Ranger Station-one of the Park Service's earliest-and the Haynes Photo Shop. In winter, the ranger station serves as a warming hut. I'd started many fires in its wood stove and learned the magic of winter there. I found myself feeling strangely sentimental about it.

And then it came. Tongues of flame whipped through the air and seemed to roll over the horizon toward us. It would have to cross the park road (usually a sufficient fire break) before reaching us in the parking lot. With terrific force, the fire “bumped” the road, hesitated slightly, and then rushed up the other side with even greater strength than before. Normally, a large parking lot with a dozen fire engines surrounded by a meadow, would be a safe place. But the fires this year were making their own rules. I found myself keeping one hand on the emergency fire shelter I wore on my belt.

By now, the fire was crowning in the trees around the meadow's edge. It was, in a word, awesome. I experienced the full range of emotions throughout this summer, including some I'd never known before. At this moment, fear was overcome by a strange, yet peaceful, fascination as I stood mesmerized by the sheer power before me. There are few times in our lives that we witness something so extraordinary that our minds must stretch to include it. For me, this was one of those times.

In a blaze of glory, the south flank of the fire ended its dramatic run by burning itself out at the lake shore. When it was over, the ranger station and photo shop were still standing, the meadow had hardly been touched, and even many trees remained unburned. It was a lesson to me in fire behavior. The wind can drive a fire so fast and so hard that it jumps huge areas. Few fires, even ones as wild as these, consume everything in their path.

Just the same, while walking through the back basin at West Thumb soon after the fire, I had mixed emotions. This area had burned hot. All that appeared to remain were ghostly black snags reaching up through a gray, smoky haze. The back basin had been a special place for me. Lush and green, it was a quiet retreat from the frenzied pace of summer. I would miss it. I felt the sorrow of a friend lost. And yet, looking closer, vibrant green grasses had begun to sprout up everywhere. Many of the serotinous pine cones had already burst open in a celebration of new life. There, lying on the ground, were the seeds ofthe next generation. Insects had enthusiastically taken up their new homes, and they, in turn, attracted a host of animals and birds. The senescent and dying lodgepole forest, virtually a biological desert, was springing to life again.

History tells us that a fire of this magnitude occurs once every two hundred to four hundred years in Yellowstone, and this was the year. As one visitor expressed it, “When nature decides to clean house, nothing's going to stop her.” For those who say, “The park will never be the same in my lifetime,” I can share their grief over the loss of what was. But I encourage them to think of what will be.

Telling a fire not to burn in a forest is like telling a child not to grow up or the tide not to come in. What was it that created that green carpet of forest that we recall with such fondness? … a cataclysmic fire, much like this one, some three hundred years ago. The fires of 1988 have left us standing at a turning point in the park's history, the birth of a new Yellowstone. “But it's not pretty,” some will say, and I wouldn't try to convince them otherwise. Birth never is. But from what I understand, the rewards are well worth the cost.

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