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Blazing Bighorn National Forest left 1 dead, recalled for its power

Yellowstone National Park wasn’t the only place where wildfires burned in 1988.

The Bighorn National Forest was burning too, taking the life of one man.

Flames were said to be reaching up to 300 feet in mid-August.

“The power and energy in one of them (the fire) is tremendous,” Fire Information Officer Harva Lou Buchanan told the Buffalo Bulletin in 1988. “The fire cloud looked like Mount St. Helens or an atomic bomb.”

Mount St. Helens, an active volcano in Washington state, had erupted in 1980, spewing ash across the region.

Eight years after the volcano blew its top, the lightning-lit Lost Fire began Aug. 12, 1988, in the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. The fire was lost one day and found the next, according to a Buffalo Bulletin newspaper article for the week of Aug. 18-24, 1988.

Craig Cope found the fire Aug. 14. Cope now is the recreation/wilderness program manager for the Powder River Ranger District of Bighorn National Forest in Buffalo. He was on the initial attack team sent to terminate the fire, he said.

For their own safety, Buffalo Ranger District firefighters withdrew Aug. 14. With the fire crowning (blazing from tree top to tree top) and flames stretching 100 feet skyward, the two Buffalo district firefighters concluded it was beyond their capabilities, according to a Lost Fire DVD from the district.

Picture a dirty sky stained an angry amber, and thousands of trees flaring like Roman candles. From a distance, the fire’s roar sounded like a savage horde of demons. 

Incident command was established at Schoolhouse Park Campground Aug. 15, but the fire overran the command position, forcing its evacuation. A fire camp was assembled near Circle Park Campground later that day, and the fire grew to 850 acres, the DVD said.

Circle Park is approximately 15 miles southwest of Buffalo. Schoolhouse Park is roughly four miles north of Circle Park.

By Aug. 16, slurry bombers were attacking the fire. Slurry bombers are massive planes bulging with fire retardant. The planes flew over, seemingly almost brushing the flames, and trailing fire retardant like streams of red chalk ground to a fine dust.

When the fire was running (spreading rapidly) on Aug. 18, lodges were evacuated in the Hunter area, said the DVD.

No lodges were lost, according to Bighorn National Forest Spokeswoman Susan Douglas.

A Bureau of Land Management radio technician was killed Aug. 19 when the helicopter he was aboard experienced mechanical failure and crashed, Cope said.

His name was Merrin Rodgers, according to Charles Bushey of Montana Prescribed Fire Services, Inc.

The pilot was severely injured, though the other crew member was not seriously injured, the DVD said. Bands of bent metal lying on a massive talus were all that remained of the copter in the DVD video.

On Aug. 20, the plan was to complete a burnout. The burnout began at 10 a.m., but crews were pulled off the line an hour later because of red-flag conditions: low humidity, high temperatures and high winds. The fire grew to 2,200 acres, Douglas said.

A burnout is “setting fire inside a control line (fire line) to consume fuel between the edge of the fire and the control line,” according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

At one time, there were 750 people working the fire. A sign at the fire camp proclaimed it was the second largest city in Johnson County. The makeshift placard said, “Welcome to Nameless City.”

That population included firefighters and support personnel, Douglas said.

When the fire was crowning and racing downhill near Boulder Park northeast of Ten Sleep, it was scary to see. “We’re in for a long siege,” Cope remembered thinking.

In the Schoolhouse Park area, Cope’s photo illustrated crowning trees generating an orange and black mountain of fire and smoke.

Some believed efforts to extinguish the fires raging around the region were an afterthought. That wasn’t the case in the Bighorns, Cope said.

“We were in full suppression on this thing from the get-go,” he said.

The strategy was to keep firefighters safe, protect structures, minimize the footprint of heavy equipment and manage the fire in the wilderness. The intention was to control the fire on the north, east and south sides. On the west side, the intent was to confine it or pinch the fire off and back to the west into the rocks where there were no fuels, the DVD said.

When the fire was burning approximately 13,100 acres Aug. 25 it was contained, Douglas said.

Cope said he wasn’t sure if there were enough resources — firefighters, slurry bombers, heavy equipment, fire engines, etc. — available to beat the flames. However, rain in mid September, in concert with shorter days and cooler nights, aided efforts to kill the fire, he said.

By Sept. 17 the fire was out, Douglas said.

Lost Fire was the biggest known fire in the Big Horn Mountains until the Bone Creek Fire in 2007, Cope said. The Bone Creek Fire remains the largest fire since records were kept in the Bighorn National Forest at 13,450 acres, Douglas said.

Showing their thanks

The folks in Buffalo appreciated the firefighters.

When two buildings were burning in downtown Buffalo Aug. 15, two slurry bombers diverted from Lost Fire doused the town with 5,450 gallons of fire retardant. That allowed the local firefighters to gain the upper hand on the fire Buffalo residents feared the fire would spread across a full block of the downtown unless preemptive measures were taken, the DVD said. In the video, locals cheered when the bombers made their six passes. 

On Aug. 27, 1988, 300 locals attended an open house at the fire camp. Since Aug. 17 that year, firefighters had been hosting informational public meetings in Buffalo on a regular basis, with attendance averaging nearly 170 people per meeting, according to the DVD. 

On Sept. 18, there was a firefighter appreciation picnic in Buffalo, where Forest Service representatives presented a chrome Pulaski —  a pick-like tool with an ax blade on one side and an adze, a curved cutting tool, on the other — to the citizens of Buffalo for their support, Douglas said.

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