Is this hell?
Or is it Yellowstone?
That was my exact thought as I piloted a small, single-engine airplane over the vast expanse of Yellowstone National Park in August of 1988, during the horrible 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 and helping take photos was the late Mike McClure, a legend in his own right, as a premier photographer.
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 be quite high as we flew over the world’s oldest national park while it was literally burning up.
The view was both impressive and unimpressive. It was impressive because as far as the eye could see was smoke. It was unimpressive because it was impossible to make out landmarks. Not even the mountains were very visible.
What was visible were a large number of hotspots where fire would shoot 200 feet in the air. It was hot down there. The park I loved was going to be changed forever.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the hottest days of that fire scene.
That event two-and-a-half 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.
Cities and towns in a wide circle around the park enjoyed the most colorful sunsets in history. Lander, which is a two-hour drive southeast from YNP, the evening views were unprecedented. It was an awful time for folks with respiratory problems. No wind and no rain could relieve these conditions.
Numbers do a good job of telling the Yellowstone Fire story. It covered some 800,000 acres or over one third of the park.
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.
Some 250 different fires ignited between June and August 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. By the first week in August it was threatening Madison Junction and racing toward Norris. By Aug. 25, it was burning structures at Canyon Junction.
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, but alas, it did not.
This complex of fires burned 140,000 acres and was finally extinguished when some welcome rains fell later that fall.
Stories about other parts of the park and the valiant effort of more than 13,000 firefighters, 120 helicopters and other aerial devices, plus National Guard and civilians detail bravery but were to no avail. Important structures like Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel were saved but efforts to stop the fires proved to be impossible.
Mother Nature wanted that fire to burn and it did until she was ready to put it out.
And that day, 25 years ago, we were flying above a scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. I experienced a memory that I would both like to forget and yet, always recall.
Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com.