Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 7

Firefighters spent the next three weeks in what seemed a never-ending retreat. Two fires took center stage, the North Fork and the Clover-Mist.

Cooke City and Silver Gate, sitting at the park's northeast entrance, were the first communities threatened by fire. The Clover-Mist was within two miles of the tiny tourist towns before a Park Service team finally stopped it.

"The threat to Cooke City and Silver Gate is essentially over," said Steve Frye, who headed the firefighting team, on Aug. 23.

That statement proved true for the Clover-Mist fire. No one imagined that in September, the Storm Creek fire would attack the towns from the northwest.

Canyon Village was the next stop for the growing number of reporters and photographers from news organizations worldwide. With the North Fork fire less than five miles away, and moving, more than 500 guests and employees were evacuated from the area at 7 p.m. Aug. 24.

The fires had developed what firefighters called "bump and grind" behavior. When the humidity was higher in the morning and the winds quiet, inversions kept smoke low in the valleys. As the humidity fell, the fires reared to life by 2 p.m., nudged along as the winds picked up. When the wind died and the humidity rose in the evening, the fires only smoldered.

"It's an emotional roller coaster," said Steve Fuller, a TW Services employee whose historic winter keeper residence was in the path of the fire. "One minute the fire lays down and looks harmless and the next day it gets up and comes at us."

The North Fork made its only official run at Canyon on Aug. 25. The next day, the 108,000-acre blaze was split between two firefighting teams and its eastern end, the one nearest Canyon, was renamed the Wolf Lake fire.

Firefighters executed a last-minute back-burn that used the weather created by the fire's huge demand for oxygen to divert it north. The roaring wall of flames missed the edge of the developed area by 100 yards.

But a spot fire that developed south of the main fire edged toward Canyon, reaching it Aug. 30. Engine teams repeated the battle tactics used at Grant Village, watering down the roofs of the hundreds of buildings as the smokey head of the fire rained glowing embers.

The siege at Canyon grew to a peak on Sept. 7, when the fire made its final charge. Miraculously, no buildings were lost.

In West Yellowstone, residents were getting restless. Since Aug. 12, when the town's fire department sent engines to Madison Campground, residents had watched nervously as the North Fork fire backed against the prevailing west winds toward their homes.

Firefighters said they would stop the fire before it reached the city limits. But the fire made a three-mile run to within two miles of the town Sept. 1, and ashes rained in the streets.

"It's frustrating, maddening," said Jenny Polkowske, of West Yellowstone. "You wonder when they are going to do something."

As Mrs. Prophet did earlier, local motel operator Clyde Seeley took matters into his own hands. He also turned to his church, but he didn't leave it to prayer.

At the request of firefighters, and through the Mormon Church's excellent emergency response apparatus, Seeley brought miles of irrigation pipe to West Yellowstone. Eventually the entire east and south boundaries were protected by sprinkler systems. Many West Yellowstone residents breathed a sigh of relief.

But for firefighters, the defense of West Yellowstone was primarily accomplished Sept. 2 when another last-moment backfire pushed the fire to the north around the town.

The first bulldozer line in Yellowstone was cut Aug. 27 along the park's western boundary with the Targhee National Forest. Three 40-foot-wide "cat lines" were built to keep the North Fork from moving west into the commercial timber in Idaho.

With the mosaic of clearcuts planted with young trees, the line appared impregnable, especially behind the prevailing wind. It was the kind of fire line critics said should have been built in the park from the start.

On the evening of Sept. 2, a 40 mph, southeast wind pushed the North Fork fire back into Idaho across the three cat lines, through the clearcuts and to the edge of the Moose Creek summer home area. On Saturday, with the Island Park area filled with Labor Day visitors, authorities ordered the Moose Creek and Lucky Dog Resort areas evacuated and put residents of the Macks Inn area on alert.

Targhee and North Fork firefighters worked feverishly to put a line around the fire. The winds finally quit, and nature stopped its own advance after burning 14,000 acres of national forest.

Cooke City and Silver Gate survived the Park Service's fire. But on Sept. 4, the phoenix-like Storm Creek fire rose again in the Custer National Forest, forcing them to leave their homes.

Fire lines were completed around the towns Sept. 6. The fire was funneled through the canyon along the 20-foot-wide breaks with only the fire line between the fire and the buildings.

A slight wind shift could have pushed the fire into the towns, but luck was with the firefighters that day.