Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 6

By Aug. 2, it was threatening to enter the Royal Teton Ranch, owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious group that had been feuding with the park over CUT's plans to develop its ranch as a world headquarters for its followers.

Instead of CUT threatening the park, the park's natural burning policy was threatening CUT's ranch.

"I think they've been acting like pyromaniac," said Ed Francis, CUT's ranch manager.

Church leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet took the matter into her own hands. She led 250 of her followers in chants aimed at stopping the fire.

"After we called for reversing of the tide, the wind shifted to the north and we attribute this to our prayer," she said.

The 1,500 firefighters battling the blaze contained the northern front of the fire Aug. 8, and its threat diminished steadily throughout the rest of the month.

Firefighters, forest and park managers huddled in West Yellowstone Aug. 3 to outline strategy for controlling the fires that had reached 121,000 acres or 6.5 percent of the park. They brought in what Barbee called the best fire behavior experts in the country to predict where the fires would be at the end of the month.

The team of experts predicted no more than 200,000 acres of the park would burn.

"They will probably run into fuels that won't carry the fire very well, and the fire will slow down considerably before the end of August if we don't have rain," said Despain. "If we do have rain, the fires will cover far short of what we've mapped out."

Even before fire behavioralists made their presentation, the winds on Aug. 2 had sent flames over a substantial portion of the land they predicted would burn. By Aug. 12, the total burned area reached 201,000 acres.

The worst was yet to come.

Black Saturday

Aug. 20 was the 78th anniversary of the infamous "Big Blowup," a wildfire that burned 3 million acres of Idaho and Montana in 48 hours in 1910.

Firefighters in Yellowstone will remember the anniversary date as Black Saturday.

Eighty mph winds breathed new life into nearly every fire. With the humidity explosively low, the North Fork fire steamrolled through the Norris Geyser Basin.

It reached several areas where winds had blown down dead lodgepole pine, turning the concentrated fuel into an inferno. It left behind only ashes and a few black, skeletal trees.

That day, winds also pushed trees onto two separate sections of power lines south of Yellowstone. The Huck fire started in Grand Teton National Park and quickly jumped to 5,000 acres, sending employees and visitors at Flagg Ranch fleeing.

"We were close to the fire when it was coming toward us," Irma Tsosie, a firefighter from San Carlos, Calif., told the Jackson Hole News about the Huck fire. "It went to the top of the trees and the wind shifted toward us and it came toward us, they kept telling us 'go back, go back.'"

The Hunter fire, in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, forced the evacuation of the Teton Science School and a dude ranch.

The Clover-Mist fire, which had been creeping north, made a run toward Crandall, Wyo., and the communities of Silver Gate and Cooke City, Mont. At the end of the day, it was less than 3 miles away.

Seventy to 80 mph winds brought the Storm Creek fire back to life for the third time, fueling a 10 mile run in three hours.

To the west, the Hellroaring fire grew to more than 30,000 acres. It had started in the Custer National Forest Aug. 15 when a spark from a horseshoe started brush on fire.

Black Saturday had shattered the artificial limits placed on the fires' potential by Despain and other fire experts. It had also shattered the illusion that the fires had climaxed.

"This is going to be a long, slow slugfest," said Rich Gale, Yellowstone Area Fire Commander. "This isn't a three-round event, this is going the full 15 rounds."

Despite the fury of Black Saturday, it pales in comparison to a ghastly firestorm exactly 78 years before.

On August 20, 1910, hurricane-strength wind whipped forest fires around northern Idaho and Montana into a flaming frenzy that made the worst day of the Yellowstone fires seem like a wiener roast.

This was the "Big Blowup' that burned nearly three million acres in Idaho and Montana in only 48 hours. By the end of the fire season, more than five million acres of national forest land had been burned throughout the northern Rockies.

Most forest experts say that 1988 will go down as the worst fire season since that terrible year. More than four million acres, including 1.75 million acres in Alaska, have gone up in smoke this year. The concentration of fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, burning through more than 1.5 million acres, compares with Big Blowup.

"I think you can say it's comparable but it's different," said Steve Arno, a research forester at the U.S. Forest Service's forest fire laboratory in Missoula, Mont. "The 1910 fire was burning in commercial forest sites; therefore, the impact on natural resources was great."

Yellowstone's fires have primarily been in wilderness or roadless lands. Fewer economic resources have burned.

The most striking difference is in the loss of life. This year, forest fires have been responsible for four deaths. A helicopter crash in Wyoming killed three, and one firefighter was crushed in Montana by a falling tree. No one has died fighting Yellowstone fires.

In 1910, the racing crown fires trapped hundreds of people and 85 were killed. Only the heroics of a few crew bosses saved many others.

The most famous escape was that of Edward Pulaski and his crew. Trapped in Placer Creek Canyon by approaching fire, Pulaski rounded up 45 men, most panicking and some crying, and led them through the inferno to an old mine shaft.

"Outside the tunnel, the canyon was a raging furnace," Pulaski said.

One man was killed on the way to the mine by a falling tree. The others lay down in the shaft as Pulaski threw water on the burning timbers at the mouth of the tunnel. All of them soon fell unconscious from the smoke, heat, and fire gases.

The first man to awaken once the fire had passed went for help in nearby Wallace. All but five were eventually saved, though their boots were burned off their feet and their clothes has been parched into rags.

Improved firefighting techniques and a better understanding of fire behavior have cut down injuries and deaths. But the nature of the fires was different.

In 1910, the fire burned through cedar, white pine, and hemlock forests. Once the crown fire started in that dense forest of large trees, it raced unimpeded at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.

The lodgepoles that make up most of Yellowstone's forests lie at higher altitudes and, despite their dry condition, do not crown as easily as the larger trees. The fires built up as the humidity dropped. They peaked on a windy days at about 3 to 5 p.m., then settled down into the evening as cooler temperatures and higher humidity return.

"It's not a running crown fire like the fire in 1910," said Arno. "It's a passive crown fire.

"The 1910 fire accumulated a lot of acreage in one or two days running across those crowns," he said.

One similarity between 1910 and 1988 is the weather.

"Never within the memory of old timer did the Coeur d'Alene experience such a dry spell as occurred during the summer of the year 1910," remembered William Morris, a fire crew leader.

Yellowstone's first fires this year were in May, but they quickly burned themselves out.

The first fires in 1910 came in late April. By June, fires appeared throughout the northern Rockies, increasing in frequency through July and August, exploding on August 20 in both cases.

But Arno expects a great difference in the aftermath of the two fires. The fires of Yellowstone burned very unevenly, leaving a mosaic of contrasting effects.

The 1910 fires burned extremely hot, leaving little ground cover, killing many of the animals, and leading to heavy soil erosion.

"I don't think you'll see that kind of think in Yellowstone," said Arno. "There will be some erosion, but it will be within the realm of what happens naturally over the centuries."