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Burned into memory

25 years ago, fiery ‘Black Saturday’ torched Yellowstone National Park

They called it “Black Saturday.”

When the historic fires in Yellowstone National Park were at their hottest in 1988, park officials were surprised the problem kept getting worse. They believed July rains would at least dampen the flames, as they always had in the past.

But not this time. Not during this hot, dry stretch of weeks in America’s oldest and most famed national park. Not in the summer of 1988.

“We threw everything at that fire from Day One,” said Denny Bungarz, a U.S. Forest Service fire manager who was the North Fork Fire’s incident commander at the time.

“We tried everything we knew of or could think of, and that fire kicked our ass from one end of the park to the other,” Bungarz said.

On “Black Saturday,” Aug. 20, 1988 — 25 years ago — fires raged across Yellowstone and elsewhere in the region. It is a date and an event burned into thousands of memories.

Yellowstone fires doubled to 480,000 acres. The Flagg Ranch, just south of Yellowstone, was evacuated, according to the National Park Service.

More than 730,000 acres burned in Yellowstone that summer. On Aug. 20 alone, 165,000 acres burned in the park, said Rich Jehle, south district resource education ranger at Old Faithful.

As bad as that was, it has been worse in the region. During the Big Blowup of 1910, three million acres in Idaho and Montana burned Aug. 20-21, Jehle said. But the fires of 25 years ago remain a vivid memory.

“The summer of 1988 has been the driest on record in Yellowstone,” according to “The Yellowstone Fires, A Primer on the 1988 Fire Season,” a National Park Service publication released in October 1988.

“April (1988) rainfall was 155 percent of normal, and May rainfall was 181 percent of normal, but practically no rain fell in June, July, or August, an event previously unrecorded in the park’s 112-year written record of weather conditions.”

In years just prior to 1988, winter precipitation was below average, but summer precipitation was 200 to 300 percent of normal in July.

In 1987, July and August rain was 303 percent and 122 percent of normal, respectively. July and August in 1988 reported 79 percent, and then a bone-dry 10 percent of normal respectively, according to the report.

“In early summer, 20 percent of lightning-caused fires had been allowed to burn,” the primer states.

However, fire managers noted by mid-July that fires were not going to be doused by rain. With the fires’ perimeters at 8,600 acres by July 21, efforts were made to suppress all fires in Yellowstone.

The fire was going to burn regardless of efforts on the ground because of dry conditions. It wouldn’t be doused until snow fell that fall, said Tom Nichols, the National Park Service chief of fire aviation.

Nichols is now stationed at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, but he worked the Yellowstone fire 25 years ago.

When the North Fork Fire that threatened Old Faithful and West Yellowstone, Mont., eventually pushed to the northeast area of the park, firefighters were perplexed and a bit awestruck.

Bungarz said firefighters tried everything that had worked in the past, and everything they could think of, but nothing worked. The wildfires burned through the park as the nation watched, transfixed by the sight of Yellowstone in flames.

More than $100 million was spent in controlling the fire in the Yellowstone area, according to the primer. By comparison, the 68,149-acre Gunbarrel Fire on the North Fork of the Shoshone River corridor 20 years later  cost taxpayers $11.2 million in 2008 dollars.

NPS tried to

prevent buildup

While it’s widely believed that Park Service staffers helped create the environment for the huge fires, that’s not entirely accurate.

The “Let it Burn” policy that was associated with then-Yellowstone Superintendent Bob Barbee actually was initiated in California’s Sequoia National Park in 1968. But that policy never advanced the notion of letting fires completely run their course, Nichols said.

In national forests and parks, efforts were made to extinguish all fires until the 1960s and 1970s.

“Prior to 1972, fires were suppressed in Yellowstone,” Jehle said.

That led to lots of tinderbox old growth, some that was still in place 25 years ago when the huge fires began.

In the late 1960s, policy was developing that encouraged easing off full suppression efforts and encouraged managing fires to foster its restorative qualities such as removing fuels and allowing new growth if the fire didn’t threaten property or people, Nichols said.

“In 1972, Yellowstone was one of several national parks that initiated programs to allow some natural fires to run their course,” said the primer.

The 1977 Director’s Order No. 18 set the standards for fire management in all parks. After 1988, all fire plans sought public input before becoming policy, and interagency coordination during fires was required, Nichols said.

Efforts were made after 1988 to share fire information with other agencies and for fire managers to determine the amount of resources available — firefighters, fire trucks, air support and other means of battling blazes — while planning prescribed fires or wildfire management. New models also analyze the potential for precipitation and air quality, Nichols said.

Since the fires of ’88, fire managers have better models to predict where a fire will spread. They can make long-term projections and marshal resources where they are most effective, Nichols said.

In 1988, people were worried about the spread of wildfires and the damage they caused.  Today, folks are more educated and understand how fire affects forests.

“People tend to get it that fires are part of the ecosystem,” Nichols said.

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