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Nature's great act

Missoula firefighters recall the summer Yellowstone burned

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"Part of the controversy in my mind, too, was that the park service was trying to send out a dual message," says Jeff Henry, a seasonal ranger of 11 years who had been reassigned to take photos of the Yellowstone fires for the park's archives. "They were saying officially that the fires were a good thing, cleaning out old growth in the forest and making room for new life. On the other hand, they were saying they were doing all that they could do to stop these beneficial phenomena. It confused the public, it confused the media and it probably confused the politicians too."

On Aug. 2, the Fan Fire in the northwest corner of Yellowstone threatened to burn across the park boundary and onto private land owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant. The flames, fought by some 1,500 firefighters, never made it that far.

Bader continued to travel the park, bouncing from new crew to new crew. His only escape came during a single night in Bozeman, when he got drunk and went to see the movie Full Metal Jacket—not the best choice when you're stressed out from fighting fires, he admits. "But my mind was never off it, because you could see the big clouds of smoke from Bozeman," he says. "I just had an attraction to it. I wanted to be in it. I didn't want to be away. I didn't want to miss anything."

In mid-August, Bader finally landed back in his old district at Norris. Just in time for Black Saturday.



Everything that could burn

Bader woke up around 5 a.m. on Aug. 20, threw on his Nomex and wolfed down a quick breakfast. Mornings often meant briefings with crew bosses to discuss tactics for the day, and Bader had a feeling he knew what his priority for the day would be: Defend the historic Norris Museum, a stone-and-log building with a domed, angular roof that has inspired park service architecture since its construction in 1929. The North Fork Fire had remained fairly active the night before, and spot fires were already forming in nearby meadows. But before the defense of the Norris Museum could begin, Bader and others had to evacuate the Norris campground—a task they'd done the previous day only to have park officials order them to reopen the site.

Fire threatened to destroy buildings near the Old Faithful Inn on Sept. 7, 1988. Crews fought desperately and saved the inn, but several other buildings were lost. - JEFF HENRY, NPS
  • Jeff Henry, NPS
  • Fire threatened to destroy buildings near the Old Faithful Inn on Sept. 7, 1988. Crews fought desperately and saved the inn, but several other buildings were lost.

"I was a little nervous," Bader says. "It was like, 'Man, this is stupid. Why are these people out here? We told headquarters this fire is going to hit this village flat-on, and they made us re-open it.' Then we had to evacuate it under fire, which is the worst thing you can do."

Bader remembers flocks of people running to their vehicles as flames grew all around.

Jeff Henry, who was living near Madison Junction that summer, arrived at the Norris complex around 9 a.m., camera in hand. He figured the "hot action" for the day would happen at the head of the North Fork Fire, an instinct informed by his experience from previous work near Yellowstone fires in 1979 and 1981. Burning conditions in '88 were, by Henry's account, "off the charts." Firefighters were already removing trees from around the museum, and the wind was starting to pick up. As crews busied themselves clearing fuel in advance of the fire, Bader recalls one woman turning to him and saying, "I didn't join the National Park Service so I could cut down trees." The approaching flames were double, sometimes triple the height of the lodgepoles.

Geyser basins are typically devoid of fuel, and there was little in Norris beyond upturned stumps, clusters of lodgepole and the odd bush. But Henry felt like the very air itself was on fire. Flames 200 feet or higher danced at the tree line less than a football field away. The fires were so hot that burning pines toppled, or blew down before they even ignited. Sparks and embers flew through the thickening smoke, driven by winds that, as the day progressed, reached as high as 60 miles per hour.

"The air was so full of sparks and embers that anything that was burnable out there in the geyser basin was torched," Henry says.

Missoula retiree and World War II veteran Ron Scharfe was 61 when he traveled to Yellowstone to fight fires in 1988. He wound up joining the “hottest hot shot crew” in the park, the Wyoming Hot Shots. - CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula retiree and World War II veteran Ron Scharfe was 61 when he traveled to Yellowstone to fight fires in 1988. He wound up joining the “hottest hot shot crew” in the park, the Wyoming Hot Shots.

For Bader, the fumes were the worst. The sky would completely black out, and he'd find himself in the middle of a cloud of toxic carbon. Bader always wore a bandana around his neck, which he would pull over his face to keep out the larger chunks of ash. Bader's crew had an engine parked next to the museum, and firefighters on the roof were continuously soaking the structure with hoses. Bader says it was like being in a movie, and at one point the engine boss shouted through the smog, "Here it comes." In the midst of a firestorm, Bader noted with a mixture of awe and dismay, "everything that could burn was on fire."

"Imagine a bunch of logs scattered around a parking lot and they're all on fire," Bader says. "It was kind of bizarre."

Henry shot several photos of Bader during the siege, despite Bader's protests. Henry told him he'd probably want a memento when the summer was finally over.

Bader's not sure when he got any sleep that night. He probably took "a two-hour nap" at some point, he says before consulting another keepsake—his old fire notebooks, which chronicle his crew's nearly 45-hour fight to save the Norris Museum. Wildfire tends to lay down at night, calmed by humidity and a drop in temperature. The North Fork was no different as Bader stayed awake through the end of what, in the coming days, would be dubbed "Black Saturday."

"I looked out around the junction, and it's surrounded by forested mountains and big hills," Bader says. "In every direction, a 360-degree arch, it just looked like there were thousands of little campfires. It was really beautiful."



Cook 'er from the inside out

Twelve miles away at Canyon Village, Missoula retiree Ron Scharfe was well into his first few weeks fighting the fires. His wife had answered a phone call at their Grant Creek home in late July inquiring whether their son Pat, a wildland firefighter, was available for duty in Yellowstone. Pat had taken off for a vacation in Oregon, and Scharfe offered to take his place. At age 61, Scharfe had performed the arduous step test at the Missoula Smokejumper Center and qualified for his red card. When the woman filing the paperwork asked for his age, he says, "I asked her, 'Would you believe 51?'"

At some point during the fires of 1988, an individual spray-painted this sign near Cooke City. - JIM PEACO, NPS
  • Jim Peaco, NPS
  • At some point during the fires of 1988, an individual spray-painted this sign near Cooke City.

Even today, Scharfe exudes the energy of a much younger man. He does have a bad hip, he says, but that'll happen when you spend 22 years putting out fires and saving lives with the Chicago Fire Department. His living room is a shrine not only to those old-timey days of firefighting"we rode on the back of the truck, not in the cab," he says—but to his experiences in World War II. Scharfe fudged his age back then too, and at 16 landed on Iwo Jima under intense gunfire, watching men die all around him. The Yellowstone fires are relegated to a crowded shelf on a bookcase by the door, where newspaper clippings and a copy of "The Hot Shot's Prayer" are tucked into the pages of a photo-heavy 20-year fire retrospective.

The flare-ups of Black Saturday saw Scharfe defending structures in Canyon Village, namely the large peak-roofed Canyon Lodge. It was his first time fighting wildfires, an experience he felt was "easier" than the structure fires he'd faced with the Chicago Fire Department. "Structure fires are tougher fires than forest fires, I think," Scharfe says. "We'd go into factories, we'd go into buildings, you wouldn't know where the hell you were at. But out here, you can see where you're at."

Scharfe watched as crews positioned themselves in front of the lodge, darting out to douse embers as they fell to the ground. The inferno was bearing down on them fast, Scharfe recalls, and the explosions from the burning lodgepoles "was like a bunch of freight trains coming together." The lodge was wrapped and covered in foam, but Scharfe noted that the building's massive two-story windows still left it vulnerable to fire.

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