Copyright Rocky Barker, 2006

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 10

The Legacy of 1988

Rocky Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires in Yellowstone Changed America. The Washington Post says Scorched Earth, "conveys a powerful lesson about how Americans have sought to manage the "cataclysmic forces" of forest fires." The story has inspired a television movie, "Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone," scheduled Labor Day, Sept. 4 on A&E Network starring Scott Foley and Richard Burgi and co-produced by Rocky. For more go to Yellowstone Fires and their Legacy.

Here's another story:

Steve Fuller guided his horse back from the meadow through the thick timber near Canyon Village.

"Griz," he whispered said as he rode by toward an opening in the trees. The grizzly boar perked its ears up and walked toward Fuller, apparently unaware he was human.

Fuller circled around up-wind and watched the bear go back to digging for roots and grubs. Grizzly encounters are regular occurrences on his frequent rides around the Canyon area.

"Right now I'm more interested in fires than grizzlies," said the Canyon Village winter keeper and photographer.

When the grizzly got Fuller's scent, he ran to the ridge that had one of Yellowstone's last hot spots. Fire encounters had become a part of the bear's life this year.

The bear and the winter keeper live only miles apart. Both have had their lives disrupted by the same fire.

Like other human and animal residents of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, they are adapting to the changed environment. Scientists say that the grizzly, elk, buffalo, and deer populations should thrive following the fires, even in the event of a major die-off this winter.

But what may be good for the population is death for the individual elk that starves to death.

"I've been there when individual elk have died," said Fuller. "It's important to feel that."

It is the same with Yellowstone's human inhabitants as well. The fires have had selective influences on their lives, emotions, and livelihoods.

Fuller has lived through 15 seasons in Yellowstone with his wife Angela and his daughters, Emma and Skye. This year they shared the ordeal of thousands in and around the park whose lives had to stand still while the fires passed through.

For three weeks the Fullers lived under siege with the North Fork/Wolf Lake fires surrounding their historic winterkeeper residence. The fires still burn near their home only now their movement can be measured in yards rather than miles.

During the peak of the fires Fuller went to work for the Forest Service fighting the fires. Even before then he waged his own personal battle with the flames, extinguishing all he could. That has changed.

"I've made peace with the fire," Fuller said. "Now I treat it like an endangered species."

Large areas in the backcountry, explored only by people like Fuller, have succumbed to the heated runs of the North Fork and Clover Mist fires. The dead and over-mature lodgepole that covered most of the park will be replaced next year by a lush growth of brush and grasses. Soon a new generation of lodgepole, whose seeds were liberated from their shells and broadcast over the forest floor, will rise above the grasses.

Now these forest incubators are black and for Fuller hard to relate to after years of communion.

"It's like looking at a beautiful woman who is suddenly scarred," Fuller said. "You love her no less and eventually you get used to it."

The fires painted a black and brown mosaic across the mountains above Canyon and most of the park's scenic vistas. Though evident for nearly the entire trip through the park, the fire scenes don't dominate the views from Yellowstone's roads or at its natural attractions.

The geysers still bubble and steam. The buffalo still roam.

The fires jumped the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, leaving it virtually untouched. Old Faithful's famous view is only partially scarred by the spot fire that jumped the village to the east hillside.

"Most people's Yellowstone is what they can see from the road,

Fuller said. "That's how it will be judged."

"I've spoken with a number of tourists who said, 'this doesn't look anything like I anticipated,'" said Ed Lewis, former executive director of the Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

The GYC, made up of local and national organizations concerned with the health of the Yellowstone area, suffered the ire of many gateway community residents who laid the blame for let-burn policies on environmentalists. But many of its board members own businesses in the area. The coalition joined with chambers of commerce and state tourism organizations in trying to promote tourism in the region following the fires. Now that Yellowstone's toursits have come back in droves, they raise old concerns about too many people again. But now fire ecology once again unites environmentalists and park officials.

For Fuller and the grizzly the wounds from the fire have healed over time.

The burnt areas provided luscious forbs or green plants that make up most of the grizzly's food and grizzly numbers have risen. Fuller found new landmarks to restore continuity to his backcountry rides.

From June 23 to Sept. 11, more than 1.6 million acres burned in Yellowstone and surrounding forests. More than 10,000 firefighters battled blazes at a cost of over $120 million.

When the first heavy snow covered the park in November, the fires faded away, the same way the Rose fire did in May...naturally.

But fire had burned its way back into the consciousness of America. Yellowstone was the first of a series of giant conflagrations that hit at the end of a decade of drought. In 1991 it was Oakland. Back to Idaho in 1992 and the Boise National Forest. In 1994 it turned deadly and again fire policy would never be the same. Just as Yellowstone harkened back to the 1910 fires, a fire in 1994 echoed an earlier burn.

Storm King Mountain and Mann Gulch are hundreds of miles and 45 years apart. Yet for as long as young men and women jump out airplanes to fight forest fires these two steep slopes will be indelibly connected. Storm King Mountain lies near the resort community of Glenwood Springs, Colo., 60 miles west of Vail. Fourteen men and women smokejumpers died July 6, 1994 when the forest fire they were fighting suddenly exploded into a firestorm.

Mann Gulch is a two-and-a-half-mile long canyon than empties into the Missouri River about 10 miles northeast of Helena, Montana. Thirteen smokejumpers died August 5, 1949 in what was until this year the worse disaster in the history of the smokejumpers.

Montana author Norman Mclean, who wrote "A River Runs Through It" spent much of his life studying the Mann Gulch fire. Mclean strived to understand in detail why three men survived at Mann Gulch and 13 did not.

His partner in this quest was Laird Robinson, a former smokejumper himself and today a public information specialist for the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Mont. For years they two men read the records, interviewed the survivors and walked up and down the deadly mountainside piecing together every detail. After Mclean died, Robinson helped the University of Chicago to publish McLean's book, "Young Men and Fire," about Mann Gulch.

So when Robinson heard the first reports about Storm King his thoughts naturally went back to Mann Gulch. He had more reason to be interested in the events in Colorado: His youngest son Calvin, a smokejumper out of Winthrop Wash., was on Storm King.

At the last minute July 6, Calvin was bumped off the plane and told to fight the fire on the ground. He didn't jump onto the top of Storm King where the wind turned from the east to the West, blowing fresh oxygen into the super-heated air that caused the tinder-dry junipers to ignite and flash into a conflagration.

He was on the fire line when it was overrun, but serendipity keep him from becoming trapped with 52 other firefighters. That night he called his father and calmed his fears. He also fed his curiosity.

"He said ""except for the different fuel types it was just like Mann Gulch,"" Robinson said.

The similarities are astonishing. Both fires were in rugged, steep terrain and both where whipped into firestorms by strong, shifting winds. Firefighters on both blazes were located upslope from the fire, which is especially dangerous. In both fires, Robinson said, some of the survivors beat the odds and outran the fire to the top the ridge while others died trying.

Both fires were considered "routine" and neither were considered serious threats to homes, commercial timber or humans.

Mann Gulch and the lessons learned there may well have saved many of the survivors. Some sought refuge in burned out areas in a manner similar to that of "Wag" Dodge, the crew leader on Mann Gulch.

Dodge started a fire ahead of the racing firestorm then jumped in the blackened area and was saved. His experience became a part of the overall knowledge of forest fire fighting and in part led to the design of the aluminum safety shelters. Only one of the firefighters who successfully covered themselves with the shelter on Storm King died.

Mann Gulch and Storm King weren't the most deadly fires in the West's history. The 1910 fire influenced firefighting decisions forever after. Firefighting was lifted to the major task of the Forest Service. The fear of potentially out-of control fires made quick and strong response the only strategy for forest fire fighting until 1978.

Since then the Forest Service has looked at each fire individually to determine the response based on hazard and human and economic interests. Even today many fires are fought simply because its easier for a federal land manager to fight a fire than to explain why he didn't afterwards.

In Yellowstone in 1988, the nation spent $120 million to fight its fires that eventually burned out naturally when snows arrived. Firefighting budgets remain bottomless while fire prevention and preset, controlled fires go begging.

It was simple for the Bureau of Land Management to get hundreds of people on Storm King to fight a fire that threatened little. Meanwhile, forest supervisors across the Northern Rockies are pleading for funds to burn or cut out the under-story of their forests left to grow by years of fire suppression. Eventually, unnatural, catastrophic fires will destroy the entire forest. But times are changing or changed again in 1994 just as they did in 1988.

The world appeared pretty gray to people in McCall, Idaho in August 1994. Purple ribbons were everywhere. They reminded the community of the loss of smokejumper, outfitter and wilderness advocate Jim Thrash, who was killed earlier that summer by a forest fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Now the fires have come to McCall's front door, carrying with them the demons that Thrash had learned to face regularly on the front lines of past fire fights. Giant convection columns from the Blackwell and Corral fires, so big they created their own weather, towered over the landscape. Smoke stung the eyes and filled the lungs. Ash covered homes and cars.

Early that month two forest fires threatened to burns expensive homes and cabins on the outskirts of this resort community. The two fires joined, running and spotting through the French Creek roadless area on a march north toward the Salmon River. Tens of thousands of acres had burned and eventually more than 400,000 acres went up before the snow came.

Thrash guided hunters for elk and deer in the French Creek area. He fought hard to preserve the area as wilderness. Mike Medberry, a McCall writer and conservationist shared in Thrash's cause. That August he shared in the community's mass mourning for Thrash and the scenery he loved.

"This fire season I lost one friend in Jim Thrash. Now I'm losing another friend -- French Creek," Medberry says. "We worked 10 years to protect this area from logging and now it's going up in smoke. I know it will come back but Jim won't."

It might have been appealing for David Alexander, Payette National forest supervisor and his fire bosses to throw everything they had into stopping the two blazes. Perhaps years ago that is exactly the strategy the Forest Service would have taken. Even today there are some who would argue for that course. Alexander chose instead to let it burn. He told firefighters to secure the southern edge of the fires -- now moving away from McCall and civilization -- to protect human lives and then to protect isolated structures. But no firefighters were placed in the direct path of the conflagration not even to save cabins and second homes.

Fresh in his mind was the memory of Thrash and the other 21 other firefighters who died that deadly season. But Alexander's wise decision went beyond safety. He and his fire experts had the collective experience of the 1988 Yellowstone fires with which to work. The lessons of that distant August and September is that man's control over nature is limited.

"You could dump millions and millions of dollars on this fire and it's still going to do what it's going to do," says Dee Sessions, of Ashton, who was safety officer on Blackwell Fire. "These are just like the Yellowstone fires. They control their own destiny."

Keith Birch, the Blackwell Fire team commander, was also the fire officer for the Targhee National Forest. He fought the Yellowstone blazes six years ago and like his entire generation of firefighters, he was humbled. He compared stopping the Payette fires to stopping a volcano. Alexander also took into account the beneficial effects of the fire on the forest ecosystem itself. Dead spruce, killed by bark beetles lies across most of the fire's path. The fire, burning inconsistent mosaics through the terrain, helped to jump start the next generation of trees, flowers and grasses.

The ecological effects are not all "good" if you put human value judgments into the natural process. The eggs and gravel nesting grounds for endangered salmon, which spawn in French Creek and the Salmon River, may be covered by mud when the forest cover is lost. The sheer size of the fire -- larger than fire historians have been able to document in the past, may roar unnaturally through stands of Ponderosa pine and other desirable old growth trees.

Medberry knows the ecological benefits of fire. But he, like anyone who has grown attached to a special place, can't help but torment over its sudden defacing.

While firefighters were saving McCall, I was touring Yellowstone with its resident fire ecology expert Don Despain. I wish those who are anguishing over French Creek and other cherished-but-now-burned places could see what Despain showed me.

In the shadow of dead, blackened 300-year old Douglas firs, a new generation of trees is rising above the fireweed and aster. Green, deep carpets of lodgepole pine grow from the ashes of firestorms past. Mixed stands of spruce, lodgepole and whitebark pine -- similar to those in the Payette -- are reborn. Similar fate awaits the Payette. When the weather changes the fires will stop. When the smoke, ash and firefighters are just a memory the forest will persist. The natural rhythm that outdoorsman Jim Thrash knew and ecologist Don Despain studies will endure.