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Clover Mist Fire devastated region, ended with fatality

As everyone knowns, trees burned, animals fled in panic and buildings were destroyed during the fiery summer of 1988, but there was also a human cost.

The Clover Mist Fire was one of the larger fires during that long, hot summer, and it also claimed a life after most of the fires had been extinguished. Firefighter Edward Hutton was killed on Oct. 11, 1988, by a falling charred tree while doing mop-up work on the Shoshone National Forest along the eastern perimeter of the Clover Mist.

Hutton’s death was one of two fatalities tied to the 1988 fires. Southern Oregon Airways pilot Donald Kuykendall, who was working under contract with the U.S. Forest Service, was killed in a crash on Sept. 11, 1988, after dropping off two passengers at the Jackson Hole airport.

What came to be known as the Clover Mist Fire began in July from a combination of three lightning-caused fires: Mist Fire, which started July 9, and Clover and Lovely fires, which started July 11, all in Yellowstone National Park, according to “The Clover-Mist Fire Summer of 1988,” a book published by Glenn Curtis and Chris Thompson.

Curtis and Thompson, then fire information officers, compiled the book of history, maps and photos for the National Forest Service based on their “Griz Gazette,” a Clover Mist Fire newsletter from the camp at Crandall Ranger Station and information gleaned from fire operations at the camp.

The three fires remained small until they ran on the Lamar River drainage in Yellowstone July 22, Thompson said. By July 23, Clover Mist was 10 miles north of the East Entrance and had moved into the North Absaroka Wilderness, Thompson said.

“We had slop-over from Yellowstone Park pretty early in June,” said Olga Troxel, Shoshone National Forest fire information. “By the time that (Clover Mist) came over it was so big.”

Slop-over means the fire crosses a natural or man-made barrier.

In 1988, Troxel was studying for her master’s degree in forestry at the University of California, Berkeley. She was a cooperative education intern. That summer was her first experience working on the Shoshone and fires, she said.

Fire managers had never dealt with fires of such magnitude or that advanced so quickly, said Clint Dawson, assistant fire management officer for Shoshone National Forest.

Fires within the Greater Yellowstone Area had burned approximately 1.6 million acres by Sept. 23, 1988, and approximately 3,500 personnel were assigned to fight them, according to the Greater Yellowstone Area Command.

Although just about everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at the blazes in and around Yellowstone, in the end, the fires dictated their direction of travel, said Dawson, who worked Clover Mist. 

By July 29, Clover Mist was estimated at 68,035 acres. Of that 1,175 acres were burning outside Yellowstone in Shoshone National Forest, Thompson said. By Aug. 11, Shallow and Fern fires joined Clover Mist, increasing it to 94,724 acres. By Aug. 17 Clover Mist reached 109,000 acres in Yellowstone. The fire size in the Shoshone National Forest remained the same at 1,175 acres, Thompson said.

“Total personnel on the fire numbered 1,409 at 0900 (9 a.m.), 24 August,” said the first issue of the Griz Gazette. “Firefighters include 624 soldiers and officers from Fort Lewis, Washington.”

Air reconnaissance south of Pilot Creek was tricky due to smoke and haze, Thompson said.

Dawson packed into the Crandall Creek area to map the fire. “It was so smoky planes couldn’t fly,” he said.

Pilot Peak is less than five miles due south of Cooke City, Mont.

The 231,100-acre Clover Mist fire was 40 percent contained on Aug. 31. U.S. Highway 212 — the only road into Cooke City and the Northeast Entrance — was closed intermittently due to spotting fires that firefighters were able to contain. Helicopters dropped 60,000 gallons of water that day on the fire in the Pilot Creek area, Thompson said.

Cooke City and Silver Gate, Mont., at the Northeast Entrance were evacuated Sept. 4, according to the National Park Service.

Mammoth Hot Springs was evacuated and the entire park was closed that Sept. 7, according to “Yellowstone and the Fires of Change,” published in 1988 by George Wuerthner.

Because of the potential threat in the Turbid Lake and Jones Creek area, about 10 miles west of the East Gate, a sprinkler system was ordered for Pahaska Tepee, Thompson said. Pahaska is fewer than five miles from the East Gate.

Imagine listening to a fully engulfed house burn, and multiply that din by 10. That was the daunting challenge facing firefighters.

Dawson took about 600 soldiers into Cub Creek and built three miles of fire line. The fire was making its presence known on Jones Creek.

“We could hear the roar,” he said, “the burning down there.”

With the fire racing down Jones Creek, Pahaska Tepee owner Bob Coe was mighty worried. First he called then-Sen. Al Simpson, who initiated helicopter water bucket drops in the area. Then his brother, now Wyoming state Sen. Hank Coe, who was a Cody fireman at the time, mustered fire engines to the scene, Bob Coe recalled in the July 8, 2008, issue of the Powell Tribune. 

On Sept. 6, the fire made a 19-mile run east and south of Jones Creek. “An estimated 40,000 acres were burned between 1200 (noon) on September 6th and 0200 (2 a.m.) on September 7th,” Thompson said.

Jones Creek flows out of Yellowstone less than five miles northwest of Pahaska.

When he left the park that night with his crew, he could see the fire pushing down Jones Creek toward Pahaska, Dawson said.

After the fire had carved a blazing swath down Jones Creek, Troxel flew over it. It was like a moonscape. All that remained were red streaks on the ground where the fire had completely obliterated trees.

“I have a vivid memory of nothing on the ground,” she said.

The fire advanced to within one and one-half miles of Pahaska and Shoshone lodges. North Fork lodges were evacuated. A 300-person fire camp sprang up at Eagle Creek campground. “At least ten additional engines were ordered statewide and more than 200 local fire fighters, U.S. Army troops, and other fire fighting personnel assigned to the Clover Mist Fire worked to save structures in the area,” Thompson wrote.

Eagle Creek is approximately five miles east of Pahaska.

No structures were lost on the Shoshone River corridor.

On Sept. 6, U.S. 14-16-20, about 30 miles west of Cody to the East Entrance, was closed, Thompson said.

From Sept. 6-9, Clover Mist in Crandall and Squaw Creek areas incinerated four dwellings, 14 outbuildings and three vehicles. One store and 14 trailers were lost in Painter estates. The Storm Creek Fire destroyed four dwellings, three outbuildings in Cooke Pass and one outbuilding in Cooke City, Thompson wrote.

On Sept. 11, the first measurable snow fell in the Yellowstone region. With the precipitation, firefighters were able to suppress or contain most fires. “The 1988 fire season was over except for mop-up operations,” Wuerthner said.

“That was the turning point,” Dawson said. “It made all the difference in the world.”

The fires weren’t immediately snuffed out, but they posed little threat to “values” such as property and infrastructure. More than $120 million was spent on the fires, but damage to property and life was surprisingly small, given the magnitude of the conflagration.

“Chris and I had never worked on a fire before,” said Curtis in the book’s acknowledgements. “For both of us, this was an experience we’ll never forget.”

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