Copyright Rocky Barker, 1999

Yellowstone fires and their legacy

Chapter 8

The National Park Service had developed an evacuation plan for the Old Faithful area Sept. 5. The first act was to be the closing of the road between Madison Junction and Old Faithful.

Under the plan, an orderly evacuation of guests at the Old Faithful Inn and other visitors would take place. All but nonessential staff also would be sent out. The plan was never used. At 8 that night, West District Ranger Joe Evans said an evacuation was "not probable." By 10 p.m. , that changed.

Evans announced at 10:30 that the Inn would be evacuated and a "temporary closure" would take effect Sept. 7. All but nonessential employees would be gone by noon. It was the evacuation plan as written. Dennis Bungarz, North Fork fire incident commander, said the fire was expected to reach Old Faithful Sept. 8. Experts predicted it would move quickly over the west ridge overlooking the area, then crawl down the eastern side, softly bumping the fire lines. The head of the blaze was expected to skirt the area to the south.

The original evacuation plans were thrown out the next morning. Park officials decided to close the Inn for the season and keep around only employees needed for that task. The park's most popular attraction, Old Faithful, would remain open for viewing. The geyser erupted shortly before 3:30 p.m. and the North Fork fire crested the ridge. Winds were blowing at 30 mph.

Cheering wildly, TW Services employees sat on top of a bus guzzling beer as the flames rose to 200 feet and roared like a tornado. Yellowstone rangers weren't cheering. Hundreds of tourists, employees and reporters were running around the complex. The flames were portentous of a major disaster.

"Get out of here now!" shouted Ranger Holly McKinney as she ran from car to car urging visitors to leave while they still could. "If I didn't have to be here right now, I'd leave."

In the half hour before the road closed, all but about 200 visitors had left. Engine crews began watering down the buildings and firefighters moved up the ridge to start a backfire. But they dropped the idea when it became apparent a wind shift would trap them.

Post-Register photographer Robert Bower was perched on Observation Point overlooking at the village from the east. He and other photographers had one-way contact with a ranger below by scanner.

Denver Post columnist Jim Carrier, known as the Rocky Mountain Ranger, was strolling through the cabins behind Snow Lodge and found one with a roof on fire. He used a fire extinguisher to put it out and received the thanks of Bungarz, who was patrolling the area in a car.

Carrier and I walked toward what is known as the government area, houses and trailers in a grove of lodgepole pines on the western edge of the village. It was the front line of the fire, divided from the rest of the village by a highway. From the highway, we watched as firefighters 60 yards ahead manned the line. The flames rising high above the trees seemed unthreatening as the winds whipped them to the east away from us.

We chose the road as our safe spot in the event we needed to use the Mylar fire shelters we'd carried on our belts since our first days on the fire. At 4:15 p.m., the roaring, smoky head of the fire turned toward us, sucking in the oxygen. We could feel it on the backs of our neck.

"Let's get out of here," Carrier said.

On Carrier's cue, we abandoned our original plan and began running away from the fire toward the huge parking lot 150 yards away. Coals were pelting our backs and fist-sized firebrands were flying by our heads. I jumped a small stream and, filled with fear, stumbled through the forest. The area turned black as night and the howling wind sounded like a jet engine as we reached the road to the parking lot. With the wind blowing at 80 mph, the parking lot hardly seemed safe.

As the oxygen returned to the forest we had just left it was like someone lit a match to gasoline. The forest was engulfed in a wall of flame that tossed embers into the crowded area, swirling through the choking smoke like wind devils.

The parking lot was in chaos. The TW employees who'd been cheering the flames were running for cover. Without fireproof clothing, they and the other tourists and employees were trapped, and could have ignited. But rangers kept their heads and gathered all the people they could in and around the Inn and Old Faithful. They likely saved a few lives and prevented serious injuries.

Television crews and still photographers were scurrying around to capture the action. It was so dark at the peak of the firestorm, that photography was nearly impossible. Many journalists shared the panic and fear of the others who had never experienced the fury of a firestorm.

But the firefighters, following the discipline needed to save their lives, reorganized in the parking lot and prepared to head back to the line when the storm passed. A spot fire started a half mile over the village south of Observation Point and grew quickly. The ranger in contact with Bower and the others on the point told them to exit right through Solitary Geyser.

"I said 'we certainly aren't going to exit left,'" said Bower.

An employee stamped out an ember that dropped on the roof of the historic log inn, which was built in 1903. Soon a sprinkler system that had only been finished this spring was turned on. A warehouse started on fire and later exploded when an abandoned fuel truck near it ignited. But when the smoke cleared, the Inn and all the other major buildings remained.

"Now I know how the people in London felt about seeing St. Pauls Cathedral after the bombings," said Paul Strasser, of Sacramento, Calif.

Fire officials later acknowledged that had the fire's path moved a couple of degrees, they probably could not have saved the Inn. The firestorm would have thrown its full fury on the Inn, the parking lot and its occupants. Evans said those tourists who faced the firestorm received an experience they would never forget.

"I think we were a little close to the edge," he said. "At no time were we outside the window of safety."

But when the fire moved to the outskirts of Mammoth Hot Springs Sept. 9, park officials decided not to provide other visitors with similar experience. The facilities were closed.

The winds were forecast to blow even worse than they had on Black Saturday, Sept. 10. The North Fork and its sister fire, Wolf Lake, were perched on the boundaries of Mammoth and

Tower villages.

Earlier in the week, ranches had been lost at Crandall, Wyo., to the east. Lake Village was within reach of the North Fork. With a large area threatened, fire engines were spread thin. Park officials had to decide which park development was expendable.

Late Sept. 9, the winds picked up near Tower and the humidity never increased. The fire advanced around and through the area into the early morning. Though no buildings were burned, the experience at Tower was an ominous indication of what could have happened at Mammoth when the burning period started that afternoon.

At 2 a.m., the winds kicked up at Mammoth and held at 30 mph for most of the day. A few rain showers spit through the smoke. Engine crews had driven all night from eastern Wyoming to beef up the defense of park headquarters. Employees and guests were evacuated in the morning, leaving a skeleton crew of park staff and a horde of reporters and firefighters left to wait for the firestorm. At 3 p.m., the humidity dropped. I had felt it before at Canyon, at the Madison River and at Old Faithful when other firestorms arrived. An orange glow rose above the hills as flames reflected off the smoke. In only a matter of time, the flames could crest the ridge and the firestorm would fill Mammoth Hot Springs.

But something was different. Even as the winds rose to as high as 80 mph, the flames never came. Although the humidity dropped, it started the afternoon of Sept. 10 at 44 percent, said Dan Sholly, Yellowstone's chief ranger. It never dropped into single digits. Heavy winds blew humid air into the fires, having a calming effect that kept them from running. That was the turning point.

Snow fell Sept. 11, and a pattern of cool, moist fall weather ended the active fire season in the park. The fires smouldered until November but never again threatened the park, its people or its wildlife. But the threat to its natural management policies had only just begun.