Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 3

Lightning hit a tree on May 24, 1988 and started a fire in the Lamar Valley near Rose Creek.

Yellowstone National Park's first fire of the 1988 season was burning. A few hours later it ended as it had begun - naturally - when rain from the thunderstorm that spawned the fire snuffed it out.

That didn't surprise Don Despain. The fire ecologist had observed a particularly wet spring. Since 1979 Despain had observed what he considered was a climatic shift in Yellowstone. Like most of the west, Yellowstone had experienced an open winter with relatively little snowfall.

An executive summary of the 1988 fires in the Yellowstone area, prepared by U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service staff,

said severe drought conditions existed in the spring in the area.

"Conditions continued to worsen from mid-May to mid-June and (the) drought index went from severe to extreme," the report said.

But in April and May, Yellowstone experienced precipitation 200 percent above normal, said Despain. It was those rains that wetted the smaller fuels that carry most fires.

"With our normal summer those fuels would pick up moisture when it rained in July," said Steve Frye, who managed firefighting efforts for several Yellowstone fires.

The Rose fire was the first of 11 natural fires inside the park allowed to burn in 1988 that went out on their own.

But Yellowstone officials were not alone in their confidence in the park's natural burn policy. On June 14, a lightning strike started a fire on the lower part of the Storm Creek drainage, north of the park in Montana's Custer National Forest.

Since the fire started in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, U.S. Forest Service officials, notified on June 16 of the fire by outfitters, decided to let it burn.

It was in this atmosphere that the Shoshone fire started in the southwest corner of Yellowstone on June 23. A lightning strike ignited old lodgepole stands circling Shoshone Lake.

The area around the lake was a prime display of the damage done by mountain pine beetle. The beetle bores into the trees to leave its larvae. When the trees sustain too much damage, they die.

The pale gray trees painted across the hills overlooking the lake interrupted the green forest. Where the beetle had been particularly aggressive, in many areas of the Pitchstone and Madison Plateaus, the dead trees dominated the skyline.

On June 25, a dry lightning storm moving through the region igniting two small fires on the Targhee National Forest and started another in the northwest corner of the park in the Fan Creek drainage.

The fires in the Targhee were quickly extinguished. Park officials allowed the Fan Creek fire to burn, under monitoring.

Nationwide, U.S. Forest Service officials were beginning to worry. Fire conditions were beginning to look more ominous than in 1987, one of the worst fire seasons this century.

"The conditions we are experiencing now are very similar to what we would expect to be experiencing in August at the height of the fire season," said Paul Weeden, a U.S. Forest Service emergency operations specialist in Washington on June 29.

By June 30, the Fan fire had spread to 35 acres. Gusty winds on July 1 swelled it to 145 acres. On that day the Red fire, on the west side of Lewis Lake broke out about four miles from the Shoshone fire.

On July 3, the 3,000-acre Storm Creek fire tossed a spot fire on the westside of Stillwater Creek and was declared a wildfire. The first Class 1 Overhead team of crack firefighting managers entered the Yellowstone ecosystem to try to stop it at its boundary with the wilderness. By July 9, they had temporarily reached that goal. The fire was quiet.

The Red and Shoshone fires still were under 100 acres. The Fan fire reached 1,800 acres by July 8.

The Mist fire started July 9 northwest of the park's east entrance, and park officials let it burn. But they breathed a sigh of relief when rain cooled the flames July 10. They didn't know it would be the last rain of any consequence for two months.

But John Burns, supervisor of the Targhee National Forest that borders the park on the west, was uneasy.

Burns lives in St. Anthony, a thousand feet in elevation below Mammoth Hot Springs, where park officials reside. Even though portions of the Targhee had received some early spring rain, St. Anthony, like most of the Snake River Valley had seen little all spring.

That may have had an effect on his outlook. Clearly concerned about dry forest conditions, Burns, on July 12, wrote to Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee, saying that the Targhee would not officially accept any prescribed fires that started in Yellowstone.

"Our burning conditions are at a point that risks are too great for us to do so this season," Burns wrote. "Other national forests within our region are also experiencing similar conditions...our resources for controlling fires are in heavy demand at this time and are expected to be committed throughout this season."

Then on July 11, nature took a shot at the Teton Wilderness south of Yellowstone when lightning ignited brush in the Mink Creek drainage.

The fire, which grew to 50 acres in 24 hours, was close to a 15,000-acre blowdown caused by a rare high altitude tornado in 1987. Bridger-Teton National Forest officials in Wyoming, already fighting one blaze in that state's Gros Ventre Wilderness, decided to let the Mink Creek fire burn.

"This is a natural fire, something which would naturally incur in the wilderness if man were not intervening," said Fred Kingwill, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. "This is the kind of weather pattern that created the wilderness we know today."

In the same storm, lightning ignited the Clover fire south of Cooke City, Mont. It was allowed to burn by park officials.