Thirty years ago, Yellowstone National Park was burning up

It was a hellish scene looking out the airplane window. Yellowstone, a place I have loved forever, was changing right before my eyes. Fire was destroying it, and I seriously wondered if it would ever be the same again.

Those were my thoughts as I piloted a small, single-engine airplane over the vast expanse of Yellowstone National Park in the early fall of 1988 during the fires that year.

Flying with me on that day was the late Larry Hastings, one of the best pilots and instructors in Wyoming history. Also along for the ride and helping take photos was the late Mike McClure, a photographer who was a legend in his own right.

Both men lived in Lander. We had been talking about making this flight for some time.

It was my bright idea. We had seen TV coverage of the fire but no one seemed to have a good aerial view. I always want to figure out a way to take a big picture in the easiest way possible, and flying over the park seemed the best plan.

Hastings was aware of the altitude restrictions, which caused us to fly quite high as we soared over the world’s oldest national park while it was literally burning up.

There was smoke as far as the eye could see. The view was unimpressive because it was almost impossible to make out landmarks. What was visible were a large number of hotspots, where fire would shoot 300 feet in the air. It was hot down there. The park I loved was going to be changed forever.

That event three decades ago was unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service. There were contrasting programs of fire suppression and “controlled burns” in place, which caused the people responsible for the park’s existence to be incapable of dealing with the conflagration.

The park superintendent was Bob Barbee, who became known as “Barbecue Bob.”

Today we are again enduring smoky air and brilliant sky scenes from California fires. Back in 1988, cities and towns in a wide circle around the park enjoyed the most colorful sunsets in history. Here in Lander, which is a two-hour drive southeast from YNP, the evening views were unprecedented. Like now, it was an awful time for folks with respiratory problems.

Numbers do a good job of telling the Yellowstone Fire story. It covered some 800,000 acres or over one third of the park. 

Much like many mountain areas today in Wyoming, the park was overdue for a huge fire event.  Extremely dry conditions (drier than ever measured before) plus controlled burns plus accidents plus mountain pine beetle tree kills plus lightning, well, the die was cast. Though hellish at the time, those fires improved the health of Yellowstone’s forests. Often, the West’s ecological health often depends on fire.

Some 250 different fires ignited between June and September in the park and the surrounding national forests. Seven fires caused 95 percent of the damage. Fighting the fires in 1988 cost $120 million, which is $230 million in today’s dollars — almost a quarter of a billion dollars.

Biggest fire was the North Fork fire, which was started July 22 by a cigarette dropped by a man cutting timber in the neighboring Targhee National Forest.

Aug. 20 was dubbed Black Sunday as more than 150,000 acres were consumed in a single day. On that day, one of the biggest fires, called the Huck Fire, started when a tree fell on a power line near Flagg Ranch. This fire burned in the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway and then crossed into Yellowstone on Aug. 30.

One of the most amazing scenes of this fire was when embers from it were sent airborne across the massive Lewis Lake by 80 mph winds, setting new fires on the other side of the lake. Firefighters were hopeful the lake would provide a natural firebreak. Alas it did not.

This complex of fires burned 140,000 acres and was finally extinguished when some welcome snow and rains fell later that fall.

It took valiant efforts by more than 13,000 firefighters, 120 helicopters and slurry bombers, plus National Guard and civilians. But to little avail.  Important structures like Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel were saved but efforts to completely stop the fires proved to be impossible.

Mother Nature wanted those fires to burn and they did until she was ready to put them out.

On that day 30 years ago we were flying above a scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. I experienced a memory that I would like to forget yet will always recall.

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