Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 4

On July 14, the National Weather Service issued its 30-day forecast, predicting 65 percent chance of hotter than normal temperatures in the Yellowstone area. It also predicted a 55 percent chance of less than normal rain.

That day, a warm wind started to blow and the fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem started to grow. July 14 provided park and forest managers with a preview of things to come.

"Up until then, with the fires, it was business as usual," said Joan Anzelmo, a National Park Service spokeswoman.

By the 13th and 14th the conditions started to change dramatically.

The Clover fire ballooned to 4,700 acres and the Fan fire grew by a third to 2,900 acres. In the Bridger-Teton, the Mink Creek fire jumped from 1,000 acres to 3,000 acres in less than 24 hours and began threatening outfitter camps.

Eight smokejumpers were dispatched to extinguished a man-caused fire west of Shoshone Lake on July 15. The Red Fire had grown to 690 acres and the Shoshone fire to 70.

By exceeding 1,000 acres, the Mink Creek fire went over the limit for prescription burns in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. On the evening of July 15, Bridger-Teton Supervisor Brian Stout declared it a wildfire and 500 firefighters were sent to battle the blaze's southern front, which threatened ranches in the Buffalo Valley.

By July 18, it had grown to 13,500 acres. Bridger-Teton officials allowed it to burn north toward the Yellowstone boundary. But all over the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, managers were starting to sweat.

"We were seeing things the fire experts had never experienced," said John Varley, Yellowstone's research director.

Yellowstone officials put their first crews on a naturally caused fire on July 17. Those first crews went to the Falls fire, which started July 12, and was threatening to leave the Park and enter the Targhee National Forest.

Stout decided to pull out the stops July 19, initiating a full containment strategy on the Mink Creek fire and declaring that the forest staff would fight every fire when it stared in the Bridger-Teton. The decision brought howls of protest from environmental groups.

"Biologically it would be better to let it go," said Tom Robinson, of Boise, then the Wilderness Society's Northern Rockies regional director.

But Stout's decision was based on predictions that the fire could get too big to stop.

"We could see a major 100,000-acre fire under the worst case scenario," said Kingwill.

Yellowstone officials were right on Stout's heels. They called in overhead teams to fight their fires July 21.