Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 5

On July 22, everyone's worst fears began to materialize.

A woodcutter, gathering firewood in the tinder-dry Targhee National Forest within 200 yards of the Yellowstone border, dropped a cigarette. He left. At 2:20 p.m., a fire was reported to the Island Park Ranger District office.

By that time, the North Fork fire had crossed into Yellowstone. Park officials asked Targhee to organize the initial attack because they were strapped for firefighters.

When Targhee firefighters arrived that evening, the fire still was less than 30 acres. They used bulldozers to build a containment line around the fire in the national forest. Crews in the park were limited to building hand lines and using a technique called back-burning to contain the fire.

They never got a line around the front of the fire, which was being pushed by strong and erratic winds. By the next day it had grown to 500 acres. A huge spot fire had shot out about a quarter mile ahead.

Some Targhee fire officials, such as John Price, Targhee's fire control officer, are convinced that they could have stopped the North Fork fire if they had been able to use bulldozers during the first crucial hours before the late-morning burning period started July 23.

But Yellowstone officials are as adamant that it could not have been stopped, and point to the spotting behavior as proof. The point is moot, Burns said.

"There never was any question about the use of bulldozers," Burns said, "It was park policy."

Later, when the fires had reached holocaust proportions, the park would allow the use of bulldozers to protect West Yellowstone and to prevent the North Fork fire from burning back into the Targhee. The lines didn't hold.

The winds that whipped the North Fork fire into a frenzy July 23, also awakened Yellowstone's other fires. The Shoshone fire grew from 160 acres to 1,000 on July 22, and more than doubled July 23 as it headed toward Grant Village.

The siege at Grant

Grant Village is the park's newest development and one of its most controversial. It was approved as an alternative to overnight facilities at Old Faithful and Fishing Bridge.

But once Grant was approved, both areas were kept intact, though a 310 unit campground at Fishing Bridge was closed in 1988 to lessen its impact on grizzly bear habitat. Grant was also built in grizzly habitat and environmentalists were bitter that it was built while Fishing Bridge remained.

When Dave Poncin, the incident commander on the Shoshone and Red fires arrived late on July 22, he found slash piled against the buildings at Grant, 10 acres of cedarshake roofs, and visitors and employees everywhere. It was a nightmare.

"We thought we were going to lose Grant Village," he said.

The next day, the first evacuation of a Yellowstone facility because of a fire threat took place at Grant. Poncin's team prepared the area for a siege.

That afternoon, the Clover and Mist fires that merged on July 22, rampaged through Yellowstone's eastern backcountry toward wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest. Since the national forest had a similar natural burn policy in the threatened area, park officials asked whether the Shoshone would accept the fire.

Jim Fischer, who then was Shoshone's acting forest supervisor, wanted it declared a wildfire with immediate suppression efforts. "In effect, we were saying we would not accept the fire," he said.

But it was too late to stop it. The fire had grown to nearly 30,000 acres and was throwing spots more than a mile ahead.

To the north, the Storm Creek fire rose from the ashes, burned a bridge over Flood Creek and ran south until it hit a back fire that protected two cabins. On July 23, it died again and smouldered for 24 days.

The Shoshone fire arrived at Grant Village shortly after noon, July 25, advancing slowly across the highway and over fire lines.

"It didn't come in on one raging line," said Robert Bower, a Post-Register photographer who watched from near the fireline. "It came slowly."

Poncin, his options limited, decided to light a risky backfire from within the firelines to protect the buildings. Spot fires were starting inside the area, anyway.

"You could hear the roar, like a constant plane engine," said Bower. "But it wasn't a plane, it was the fire."

At one point, firefighters were forced into Yellowstone Lake as they evacuated their camp. But when the burning period ended in the evening, no buildings were lost and Grant Village had been saved.

At least one man was not pleased.

"One of the real shames of this fire season is that it didn't burn Grant Village," said Howie Wolke, a founder of the radical environmental group Earth First!

Interior Secretary Donald Hodel toured the fires July 27 and tried to reassure the nation that what was happening was good.

"We aren't going to waste our resources where fires aren't doing harm to the park," Hodel said. "There's a long term beneficial effect from fire."

But he added, "It is our policy to fight wildfires in the national park."

After returning to Washington D.C., he was even more reassuring.

"Yellowstone is not in danger...We're not going to let Yellowstone be damaged by this," he said on ABC's Good Morning America.

The fire threatened Old Faithful July 27, but turned south. Brush was clearing and a fire line was built along its perimeter. By July 31, with 115,000 acres burned in the park, the threat from the fires was beginning to diminish.

"It would be extraordinary if Old Faithful was threatened again by this fire," said Costa Dillion, a fire information officer.

With all the attention, men and equipment focused on the fires south of the park, the Fan fire was nearly forgotten. It burned its way back into the minds of firefighter and park officials July 27 as it began moving north out of the park.