Yellowstone Fire 1988: What Did We Learn?

[At the time this article was written - Spring 1989] Rick Gale [was] the National Park Service's wildland fire suppression specialist. For seven weeks in 1988, he served as area commander for the Greater Yellowstone Area Command. He is also president of ANPR.
firefighters use a hose to spray foam on a dormitory structure

By Rick Gale, Branch of Fire Management, Boise

The 1988 fires in the Greater Yellowstone Area were a once-in-a-fire-career-experience for everyone involved. Thirteen major fires burned a total of 1,500,000 perimeter acres and were fought by approximately 9,600 persons at peak mobilization. Fifty percent of the National Interagency Type I Incident Management Teams where simultaneously involved in managing these fires. The military was involved to an unprecedented extent, with six Army and Marine Corps battalions deployed. More aircraft—a total of 117— were assigned to the Greater Yellowstone Unified Area Command than ever before on any single incident or group of incidents. More than 3,000 members of the media photographed, wrote or talked about the Yellowstone fires.

What did we learn, if anything, from all this? Are there lessons we can apply to assist us in managing future large scale incidents?

Interagency fire reviews have been conducted for nine of the major Greater Yellowstone Area fires as well as for area command. A joint Department of Agriculture-Department of Interior fire management policy review has been completed. All of the documents produced by these review teams are public knowledge, and there's no point in rehashing them. Instead, this article will focus on procedures and strategic and tactical considerations which evolved from the 1988 efforts.

In addition, there are several premises which were seriously bent, if not broken, by the magnitude of the Greater Yellowstone Area operation. These need to be analyzed and resolved.

The logical place to begin is with tactics. Four rather specialized tactical operations were widely utilized in Yellowstone and deserve discussion. They concern the use of foam, fire shelters, fire explosives and sprinkler systems.

The major foam system used in Yellowstone was the Bureau of Land Management's compressed air foam system. This system discharges a stream up to 180 feet from an engine, and was used to pretreat structures, protect power lines, create ground-to-crown foam barriers and for both initial attack and mop-up. At Canyon Village, for example, 50 cabins and the visitor center were pretreated with a foam blanket which was eventually 200 feet wide and 2,500 feet long.

Direct extinguishment of fire was accomplished with low expansion foam, which clings to wood and other fuels. In other applications, surface fuels were protected with medium expansion foam, which fills the airspaces between fuels with up to two feet of foam. In all probability, this was the first time medium expansion foam had ever been used on surface fuels in the United States.

Future uses of foam in wildland fire suppression are virtually unlimited. Medium expansion foam will become the fireline of the future. Long term foam and foam-retardant mixes will be used to protect structures and property. Aerial delivery of foam is in its infancy, and future applications are now being developed. Wildland-urban engines will have equipment to produce both compressed air foam and aspirated foam; they will also have foam concentrate storage, injection systems, and deluge capability.

Fireline explosives make it possible to construct long trench lines rapidly with relatively small commitments of personnel. A small, eight-person blasting team can lay and detonate about 1,500 feet of trench line per hour, and this rate can be doubled or even tripled by using helicopter support for transportation.

The best tactical use of fireline explosives is through indirect attack to create a barrier for burnout operations. Fireline explosives will create a trench approximately 18 inches wide in light to moderate fuels, and can be very effectively used in steep, rugged terrain. They're ideal for connecting natural barriers for indirect attack. But fireline explosives should not be used for direct attack, as they will not stop a running, spotting fire.

Fireline explosives also loosen soil and facilitate line improvements. Another benefit is that they scatter brush and debris, thereby eliminating the piles of such material that normally accumulate next to a line. This helps reduce fuel loading and also reduces the need for post-fire rehabilitation.

Fire shelters have found another use, so don't pitch those old, worn out shelters. They can be used for structural protection. In Yellowstone, old shelters were wrapped around electrical transmission powerline poles, and proved to be very effective in protecting them. Fire shelters were also wrapped around backcountry cabins where no other means of pre-treatment was practical or available. These cabins also survived the fire intact. But a caution is in order here: Be sure old fire shelters are stored in a location where they cannot be mistakenly issued for personal protection.

Irrigation sprinkler systems have long been used in specialized wildfire suppression situations, but never to the extent they were employed in Yellowstone. Here sprinkler systems were installed to protect power and telephone line corridors, to protect structures, to raise fuel moistures and relative humidities, to provide a line for burning out, and to provide psychological reassurance.

Using lightweight, large volume, quick-coupling irrigation pipe, these systems were rapidly installed and required only a constant water source from which to draft. Such systems are readily available in most agricultural areas.

Along with these rather innovative tactical developments, other concerns surfaced during the Greater Yellowstone fire operations, and these need further discussion and eventual resolution.

The term “light hand on the land” proved to be as inaccurate and unfortunate a phrase as “let burn”. There were as many interpretations of what constituted a “light hand on the land” as there were people discussing the concept. What “light hand” really equates to in terms of fire management practices is “minimum impact suppression”, i.e. doing only that which is necessary to meet control or containment objectives. But no more and no less.

The difficulties with minimum impact suppression in the Greater Yellowstone Area arose from unclear directions, making assumptions rather than arriving at joint agreements and the lack of follow-up to assure that management goals were being met. To ensure that minimum impact suppression tactics are correctly understood and implemented, the agency administrator must clearly define his or her land and resource management goals, and incident objectives must clearly articulate the specific tactics which are to be used to implement those goals.

The size and extent of fireline is not the sole measure of minimum impact suppression. Other examples of this approach to fire management include locating helispots in natural openings, long-lining in lieu of helispot development, and using coyote tactics instead of establishing camps.

The threats to developments in the Greater Yellowstone Area — including West Yellowstone, Cooke City/Silvergate, Gardiner, Grant Village, Old Faithful, Canyon Village, Madison Junction, Flagg Ranch, Island Park, Mammoth, Tower Junction, Crandall and Pahaska — once again highlighted the role of incident management teams in structural protection, and, more particularly, in structural protection planning.

Incident management teams can no longer leave structural protection planning to local agencies and jurisdictions. While those agencies may implement and execute the structural protection plan, the plan itself is the responsibility of the incident management team. Training courses, particularly at the 400 (regional) level, need to be expanded to include this dimension of firefighting.

It was also apparent in the Greater Yellowstone Area that we lacked expertise in the strategy and tactics of dealing with extreme fire behavior. No good incident commander ever likes to admit defeat, and, as a result, suppression resources were again and again committed to no avail.

Incident management teams need to develop an ability to look at the forest and not the trees; they need to be prepared to consider alternative strategies - other than just “more resources are better” – when faced with the types of fire behavior we saw in and around Yellowstone. Although politically unfeasible, the best use of suppression resources for most of the summer of 1988, except for structural fire protection, would have been to send them home until the weather abated, extreme fire behavior subsided, and some sort of effective suppression action could have been taken. Incident management teams need to learn how to work smarter, not harder.

Sprinklers along a powerline wet down forest on either side of the power poles.

Another lesson from last summer concerned the unprecedented use of military resources for fire suppression duties. Most incident commanders believe that the military fire suppression forces, once they received their initial field orientation and training, performed as well as and in some cases better than many Type II crews.

However, the organizational structure of the military makes it necessary to conduct a considerable amount of preplanning prior to assigning such resources to an incident. Single resource (crew) bosses and strike team leaders need to be assigned to military units before they report to an incident. The military should be deployed only to those incidents where at least platoon or section level components can be assigned as a unit. The military command staff needs to be integrated into the incident management team staff. Military planners and logisticians proved to be an outstanding addition to those sections, and should be full partners in the planning process. And incident managers need to be prepared to deal with the longer lead times necessary to both deploy and demobilize military resources than are required for equivalent numbers of civilian crews, largely because of the extra military logistical support needs.

The size and scope of the Greater Yellowstone fires brought other problems to the fore which need to be reviewed and resolved:

  • The heavy and sometimes overwhelming demands placed on firefighters made it evident that we need to develop national inter-agency guidelines for providing rest and relaxation and rotation to and from incidents for crews, for overhead and for incident management teams.
  • Because of the multi-agency, multi-regional scope of the Greater Yellowstone fires, existing methods for tracking fire costs and providing fiscal controls proved inadequate. Existing dispatching and logistical support networks, procedures and organizations were also overwhelmed. It's evident that overhead teams on large, multi-regional complexes need to be able to interact directly with the National Interagency Fire Coordination Center (NIFCC) in Boise.
  • The National Park Service is deficient in the numbers of qualified incident information officers available for fire assignments at the park, regional and national levels. Park Service public affairs officers and other skilled park ranger communicators need to be trained in the nuances of incident information so that we can fulfill agency-specific incident information needs. The Service also needs to take a leadership role in developing and using inter-agency incident information teams, which have proved to be extremely effective where established.
  • Our current infrared capability, both in terms of equipment and interpreters, is seriously deficient for dealing with fires of the size of those which occurred in the Greater Yellowstone area. A major effort needs to be made to identify and employ commercial and military infrared expertise and equipment to augment the existing infrared capabilities of fire agencies.
  • The role of area command needs refinement. The Greater Yellowstone Unified Area Command, as organized at West Yellowstone, attempted to perform standard area command duties while simultaneously functioning as a Multi-Agency Coordinating (MAC) group. Area command for the Greater Yellowstone Area also directed an expanded dispatch operation, a mobilization/ demobilization center, a major information operation, and an air operations branch.

For the first time, area command reported to a different organizational hierarchy than did the individual incident management teams. Area command answered to three regional foresters and the regional director of Rocky Mountain Region, while incident management teams received their authority from and reported to park superintendents and forest supervisors. This led to difficulties in coordination and control, and the traditional area command responsibilities of setting incident priorities, coordinating strategies and allocating critical resources were made much more difficult and unnecessarily complex.

The roles and responsibilities of area command need to be further analyzed and refined. When established, area command staff must be given overall authority and responsibility for the total operation, then redelegate their authority to individual incident commanders. This will allow area command to better fulfill the command portion of its role.

Area command teams also need to be predetermined and made a part of the national team rotation schedule. Area command teams need to be composed of the best Type I incident command team members and all must be graduates of the area command course (I-620).

The probability is that the fires of the Greater Yellowstone Area raised more issues needing resolution than they provided answers. But the National Park Service and other fire agencies must continue to proactively refine wildfire suppression management, strategies, tactics and procedures. Only by actively resolving issues can we insure that wildfire suppression becomes ever more efficient, effective and economical.

The comments in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of either the Association of National Park Rangers or the National Park Service.

Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017