DYK? Out-of-town farmers voluntarily provided the irrigation equipment needed to protect Yellowstone National Park's historic Old Faithful Lodge during the 1988 wildfires. Credit: National Park Service

Unsung Heroes of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires: Church Leaders and Farmers

By: Liz Davy Paula Nelson Matthew Ward

Topic: Collaboration Wildfire

Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

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.

A bison crossing a smokey road, with firefighters present. An iconic image from the 1988 Yellowstone Fires

As Americans watched those fires burn in and around the crown jewel of the National Park system, the year 1988 and the flames became etched in our memories. Credit: National Park Service

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.

Irrigation piping during the 1988 North Fork Fire

Within 24 hours of the request, farmers had successfully installed irrigation pipe around the town of West Yellowstone. Credit: National Park Service

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.

Leon Martindale in front of an audience

Leon Martindale recalls his experiences during the 1988 wildfires at one of Island Park Sustainable Fire Community’s 30-year-anniversary events. Credit: Matthew Ward, The Nature Conservancy

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.

Three panelists speaking while showing a slide

Keith Birch (the fire management officer at the time of the 1988 fires, far right), Scott Waldron (retired fire chief of West Yellowstone, stnading, center) and Leon Martindale (farmer, left) telling the crowd about their roles during the Yellowstone fires. Credit: Matthew Ward, The Nature Conservancy

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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7 thoughts on “Unsung Heroes of the 1988 Yellowstone Fires: Church Leaders and Farmers”

  1. Wesley Keller says:

    Here we thought collaboration, working with groups such as farmers, churches, contractors and our neighbors was a new concept.
    It wasn’t that many years ago that it was commonplace in our society for this to happen organically. Someone needed a hand, there was a problem that needed fixing you went and took care of it.
    I grew up in Pennsylvania, our parents and grandparents, were miners, farmers, steel workers or garment workers. The attitude instilled in us was to just get off your butt and do it. I think we as a society is missing some of that attitude.
    Please don’t take this the wrong way, but it seems we spend much more time planning then doing. I’m a member of one non profit where it takes three to five, “let’s talk about it” sessions before your hands get dirty. As you can image this drives me crazy.
    This was a wonderful look back at the Yellowstone Fires and a great opportunity for giving those the recognition they deserve. Thank you for sharing the story.

  2. E Jensen says:

    Thank you for sharing this aspect of the fire’s history.

  3. Pam Walrath says:

    Wow so cool to read this I was one of the first responders of the North Fork Fire and once we put it out moved to the Yellowstone for the rest of our 21 day shift. Would love to see this presentation and always have said I need to go back to see the park now – Pam Barger Walrath from the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in 1988

  4. Bob Reis says:

    The account of the water hole being created by dynamite in the river at West Yellowstone is not quite like how I heard it from the “blaster” who “pushed the button.” In 1988 the Washington St DNR sent a “Cord Crew” to Yellowstone to create fire line with Prima-cord. When the town of West Yellowstone was plumbed for the sprinkler system it was found that the pumps did not have a big enough water hole for the pumps, as per the above account, as time was of the essence, the cord crew was asked if they could blow a hole in the Madison. They said they could and proceeded to set the charge with fertilizer and det. cord. A “Parkie” came up and said they could not use explosives in the river, the mayor then replied “you better get back or you will get real wet”. Water hole was created and the town was saved.

  5. Richard Spriggs says:

    I was there on Black Saturday with the Texas #1 crew from Region 8, USFS. Our crew and some of the other southeastern crews were stationed along the sprinkler line at the base of the mountain behind the Old Faithful work buildings and big parking lot. When the North Fork fire came off the mountain toward the lodge it was moving about 60 mph. We retreated towards the lodge and put out hotspots until things calmed down. The firefighters who foamed the lodge down that day, the sprinkler system and the countless first responders all contributed to a favorable outcome that day in 1988.

  6. Liz Davy says:

    Thank you all for your stories. great to hear different perspectives. I am always game to hear more. send this post on to others you know who helped in Yellowstone.

  7. larry fowler says:

    I was the first there with a load of main line pipe. We waited until late after noon before the park service gave us the OK to blow a hole in the river to pute the pump in.then every one went to work and before dark they turned the sprinklers on.I remember it was like new rain storme and every one took a deep breath .

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