Dec 13, 2018
Unsung Heroes of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires: Church Leaders and Farmers
A burning cigarette butt landed on a pile of sawdust, soaked with oil and gas. And like that, a firewood cutter started the North Fork “Yellowstone” Fire, a fire that would burn for four months and cover 531,182 acres. Eventually, it became the largest of the 51 fires that burned in and around Yellowstone National Park during the summer of 1988. As Americans watched those fires burn the crown jewel of the National Park system, the year 1988 and the flames became etched in our memories. In total, the fires affected over 1.6 million acres and almost burned down the town of West Yellowstone as well as the historic Old Faithful Lodge.
What’s less widely known is why some of the town and the lodge remained standing and who played a role in that fate.
The firewood cutter’s unfortunate actions occurred in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, near Yellowstone National Park’s boundary. The fire travelled quickly into the park, where it actively burned until early September, when uncharacteristically high winds blew the fire back onto the Targhee National Forest, threatening additional major recreation areas such as Big Springs and Johnny Sack Cabin. The tourism-dependent town of West Yellowstone was under threat, and residents, of course, were concerned they would lose all they that had worked for. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints ’ leaders drew on their connections and organized a response that supplemented the federal agencies’ actions. Specifically, they asked for irrigation sprinklers to surround West Yellowstone, in hopes that they could create a wall of water.
Idaho Farmers, like Leon Martindale, received the request. Lucky for West Yellowstone, most farmers were finished irrigating crops for the season. It took them less than 12 hours to pull 12 semi-truck loads of irrigation pipe from their fields and deliver it to West Yellowstone. After another 12 hours, the pipe lined the town’s perimeter. There was a slight hiccup when the Park Service told them that they couldn’t dig a hole with a backhoe in the Madison River (which was originally how they planned to pull in water for the massive pumps). So, instead, they blew a hole in the river with dynamite. Why dynamite was a more acceptable method to the Park Service was not exactly clear.
The farmers operated the pump’s irrigation lines 24/7, without pay. Eventually, they were asked to help protect the generator that was pumping water needed to protect Old Faithful Lodge. On the day now known as Black Saturday, the situation went from bad to terrible. With the fire fast approaching Old Faithful Lodge, firefighters evacuated the area. The last people to leave were the farmers operating the pumps. Thankfully, none of the farmers lost their lives and the lodge and town of West Yellowstone both remained standing.
This past summer, to commemorate the 30-year anniversary of these fires, the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community organized several events to engage our community members. We ate popcorn and watched a movie about the Yellowstone fires, Yellowstone Aflame. We revisited history, shared stories, discussed past and current forest management, and continued our preparations for the inevitable next big wildfire. Members of the community who participated in the 1988 fire response efforts, including farmer Leon, Keith Birch (Caribou-Targhee’s former fire management officer), and Scott Waldro (West Yellowstone’s retired fire chief) recounted their experiences. Calling Leon’s presentation a highlight would be an understatement; he was both humble and graphic about the wall of flames and the work it took to save West Yellowstone and the Old Faithful Lodge.
To wrap up our summer outreach, we hosted 40 participants on a field tour to visit the spot where the North Fork Fire started. There, we discussed the Forest Service’s response to the event and looked at the fire’s effects on the vegetation and landscape 30 years later. Participants got a good feel for the timeline of stand-replacing wildfire in a lodgepole pine forest and saw which areas had fully recovered versus which stands had still not regrown. Participants shared their experiences and perspectives, and local firefighters described how wildfire (and the Forest Service) would likely behave today in a situation similar to 1988.
Island Park Sustainable Fire Community’s approach to fire adaptation is multifaceted, and not solely focused on wildfire response. We invest in strategically placed defensible space, interagency partnerships, controlled burns and outreach. Still, the concept of non-fire-oriented community members, like church leaders, initiating a wildfire response tactic that was then implemented by non-fire professionals (out-of-the-area farmers) is nothing short of unique and is certainly a story worth sharing .
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