25th Anniversary of the Yellowstone Fires of 1988
On the 25th anniversary of the Yellowstone fires of 1988, here’s a personal account from the late Theo Meiners…
How I Spent My Summer Vacation
By Theo Meiners
Published in the Jackson Hole Skier magazine, Winter 1988/89 issue
In summer 1988, ski instructor Theo Meiners joined the ranks of firefighters working on the historic 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park. The following are excerpts from Theo’s journal.
Pocket Creek Fire, Wind River Mountains
I was working in the supply depot and at first things were pretty slow. After three days of being bored to death, a single, gigantic thunderhead moved slowly toward our camp. Thunder, lightning, hail the size of marbles…a lightning strike on the mountain in front of us…Pocket Creek had burst into flames.
Within moments we went from being demobilized to mounting a 100% gun-ho attack. The fight began in earnest with a strategy we would see repeated throughout the dry summer. Smoke jumpers were deployed to knock out the leading flames, bombers came in low with retardant drops, and other fighters hiked into the blaze to cut a firebreak around the perimeter.
The Forest Service assault really shined at Pocket Creek and the potential for a much greater fire was extinguished in four days. But it was not to be so in Yellowstone, where the winds and accumulation of burnable fuels were to provide a drama on a much grander scale.
Mink Creek Fire, Teton Wilderness
By mid-July winds had whipped this conflagration into gargantuan proportions; a column of smoke rose to over 30,000 feet, visible from Salt Lake City. The Black Rock Ranger Station became a base camp city of 1,200 firefighters. There was every kind of helicopter imaginable. Cargo planes and bombers were everywhere. The FAA even sent out flight controllers. This was war.
Firefighters are a breed unto themselves. I saw men and women, their faces lined with grime and fatigue, moving into the flames to extinguish them with just a pick and shovel. It’s dangerous and backbreaking work, dragging on around the clock. In a strange contrast, they are experienced campers and leave little trace of their presence in the wilderness. This really helped in keeping the delicate ecosystem from being trashed by thousands of firefighters.
Atlantic Spike Camp, elevation 10,200 feet – From this camp above the upper Yellowstone River, we watched much of the national park burn. Driven by unusual north winds, the fires had increased in size by 50,000 acres in one day. Our camp had a fantastic view, and was a magical place – too bad everything was burning. Yet we started to have the feeling that it was really a new beginning of the land. It was being reborn, not destroyed, as we first had felt.
Bailey Meadows – The smoke was getting worse as the day progressed. Equipment was arriving as the camp was under construction. Crews were marching in, herding the fire along the way. After dinner the wind became horrific, blowing embers onto us from a mile away. Trees were being consumed in seconds, exploding into fireballs. In an hour we were staring into a wall of flames a hundred and fifty feet high!
At 10 p.m., 107 dog-tired men and women spent the night marching six miles through fires raging on all sides. It proved to be a very long night, and an unforgettable experience.
Gravel Creek Camp – This camp was located at the head of the Huck Fire in a lot of heavy timber. The crews were very tired and supply materials had not arrived. The situation was not good as the fire had made two miles of progress in four hours time.
By noon the next day the noise of the approaching fire was deafening . Ninety men were cut off from us by their own back burn. Another evacuation was ordered as the fire raced toward camp. Over the evacuation site the helicopter had to locate us by compass bearing. We got out just in time to watch from the air as the whole area was overrun by flames.
The fires raged until the snowstorms of late September. Ten thousand firefighters had been witness to the incredible forces of nature, fighting against the odds and losing almost every battle. — Theo Meiners, 1988