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October 03, 2013 7:36 am

How I spent the summer of 1988

Written by Gib Mathers

Memories of the Fires of ’88 are etched into my brain like a burning brand.

Like others scattered around the Big Horn Basin, I was among many fighting fires in Yellowstone National Park and the Shoshone and Bighorn national forests. My job may have been dull compared to firefighters sweating on fire lines, pilots dumping slurry from big airplanes or initial attack crews leaping from airplanes or helicopters like Navy SEALS in Nomex, but it had its moments.

I worked at the fire cache at Yellowstone Regional Airport, downstairs from the Cody Interagency Dispatch Center.

It was a warehouse stuffed with sleeping bags, shovels, chainsaws, MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), etc. I drove pickup trucks and rented moving vans to fires, delivering and returning supplies for the fire cache in Cody and one huge cache outside Denver.

I remember being issued the now well-known fire retardant Nomex uniform of green trousers and yellow shirt. They smelled musty, like clothing hung in the closet too long with mothballs. I bought a cheap pair of logging boots to go with them and felt myself a vital cog in the herculean effort to dominate the fires.

I remember driving to a camp. As I topped rises before the pass, I noted what I thought were thunderheads. Finally, I rolled over the pass and gasped at a huge mass roiling over timber like a filthy mushroom cloud.

Trees were crowning like big black candles sprinkled with gunpowder. The smoke was thick and black, turning gray as it clawed for the heavens.

By the time I neared Crandall, a few isolated trees were burning near the highway. Not being particularly bright, I parked and walked to the burning snags, feeling bulletproof in my Nomex. In the timber, the fire snapped and popped like Rice Krispies amplified through bullhorns.

The heat was so intense I was soon sweating. Then it felt as though the skin on my face was blistering from an instantly intense sunburn. 

I was cocky, but my cheekiness rapidly fizzled when I realized the torching trees were closing in. I was frightened. I had to retreat further into the forest to escape the flames, but eventually managed to skirt the heat and reach my truck for a hasty departure.

I drove into the camp near Crandall Ranger Station. With the aid of camp roustabouts, we quickly unloaded the truck.

Supper was always good. Quality food, high in protein and calories, cooked by caterers.

I was feeling a bit smug, kicking back with a cup of coffee, when the real firefighters trudged into camp. The marched in a long line like weary soldiers returning from an interminable battle. Hardhats were scratched. Faces smeared gray-black from embers falling too close for comfort. Their once-bright yellow shirts were streaked with uneven gray stripes.

They would eat, then crawl into tents to sleep before beginning another seemingly endless shift.

These were the people doing the heavy lifting. I was driving back and forth to camps. My days lasted eight to 18 hours, but each night I slept in my own bed or one paid for by Uncle Sam.

I recall a frightening night when I was driving — creeping, really — at 10 mph because I couldn’t see the road for the smoke. It was like driving through a billowing smoke stack. There was no beginning or end. It took hours to reach my destination, hours that seemed like days as though I was trapped in a time warp with no help. No firefighters to give encouraging waves or engines with blazing lights to minimize trepidation.

Finally, I reached a junction. A gate was in place. “Road Closed” said the sign. “The hell with that,” I thought.

The gate was jammed in pipes beneath the roadway. I pulled the gate up, lock and all, jumped back in the truck and took off. I wasn’t going to let down those faceless guys going to battle. Sure, it was just shovels and MREs, but if they needed it, by God I was going to get it there.

By the time I reached the camp, dropped my load and headed back, the smoke had cleared enough to drive in relative ease.

In mid-September, rain and snow cooled the fires. My group of temporary workers at the cache left to return to their lives and 9 to 5 jobs. I remember their faces to this day; they were some of the finest people I’ve ever known.

I landed a job at Old Faithful in Yellowstone in the spring of 1989. I remember the snags standing like seared fenceposts amid clusters of spring grass rising from the ashes. They were like phoenixes signaling the dawn of a new Yellowstone. The millions of dollars spent suppressing the fires were no match for Mother Nature or drought. The fires burned seemingly of their own accord, but the land remained, and from it new life sprung.

(Powell Tribune reporter Gib Mathers wrote a seven-week series on the Fires of 1988 that concluded on Tuesday. The entire series will soon be available in an designated area at www.powelltribune.com.)

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