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October 01, 2013 7:43 am

Remembering the blazes of 1988

Written by Don Amend

One summer afternoon back in 1988, I stepped out into the back yard of my Greybull home and looked up into a dark gray sky.

It was still broad daylight, but great clouds of smoke generated by the massive forest fires in Yellowstone Park were rolling in and robbing the whole landscape of its color, leaving only shades of gray.

As I watched the smoke drifting across the sky, I heard the sound of an approaching airplane, and an old refitted transport appeared through the clouds, on its way from the Greybull airport with a load of slurry to drop on a fire burning in the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

As the plane passed overhead, the roar of the propeller-driven old airplane, its low altitude, the clouds of smoke and the nearly colorless atmosphere altered my perception, and I felt as though I had been teleported into a scene from a black-and-white World War II movie. For a few minutes I imagined myself in a war zone, watching a bomber on its way to drop a load.

In a way, I was in a war zone, and the battles against the fires were only part of that war. Political fights about who was to blame for the situation were also raging around me during that long hot summer.

Those memories have faded in the quarter-century since that summer, when it seemed as though the fires would never end, but Gib Mathers’ recent series of Tribune articles recalling that time have revived them.  

The smoky skies are a vivid memory, especially those of a Friday when I stepped out of the old Greybull High School into an eerie green glow hanging over the town in the late afternoon. Another memory is the parade of fire-fighting equipment from all over the West that I watched while eating my lunch in the teachers’ lounge one day.

I remember the nightly news reports on the progress of the fires and the difficulties of the firefighters, some of whom I knew personally. A particular remembrance is the despair in the voices of firefighters interviewed after they had pulled out of Old Faithful at the last possible moment, distraught because they thought they had lost the beautiful old inn to the flames.

I remember the political firestorm that erupted as the fires raged. I remember hundreds of letters to editors decrying the failure of the government to just put the fires out, letters from writers who appeared to believe extinguishing the fires was as simple as blowing out a birthday candle, and the heavy criticism dumped on the National Park Service for “allowing” the fires to happen in the first place.

I remember politicians posing in front of burning trees and pontificating about the failures of the Park Service, and I remember calls for an investigation to determine who should be fired for not predicting a situation that no one had ever anticipated.

I remember the lamentations of those who were certain that Yellowstone was being destroyed, and nobody would ever come there again. In particular, I remember a national newscast focusing on a group of people heading down the walkway to watch Old Faithful erupt “one last time,” as if the old geyser was going to succumb to the flames along with all the trees.

On the flip side, I also remember visiting the park that fall, and being pleasantly surprised at what I saw. There were large areas of burned trees, to be sure, but there was nothing like total destruction. The climb over Dunraven Pass still offered breathtaking views, wildlife still grazed in Swan Valley and Old Faithful Inn still stood, ready to serve visitors lunch and ice cream while they waited to watch the old geyser do its thing, un-scorched by the flames.

In the end, most people realized that the fires, as bad as they were, were not a disaster, but part of the life of a living, breathing forest, which, given time, would heal itself. There was hardy a ripple in visitation numbers. Visitation continued to increase each year since 1988, and those visitors watched as wildflowers bloomed among charred logs and thousands of young lodgepole pines sprang up to fill the gaps in the forest.

Yellowstone survived.

Today, though, other issues bring political conflict to the park. The most serious of these is the question of maintaining the park’s infrastructure in an era of reduced government spending. Failure to deal with those needs might require limits on access due to health and safety issues and reduce visitation to the park to the detriment of Park County.

Unlike the fire damage, these problems can’t be fixed by Mother Nature. We’ll have to do it ourselves through that process known as politics.

I hope we as a nation are up to the challenge.

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