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Twenty years ago, 36 percent of Yellowstone National Park suffered the most devastating fire in its history. Come with me as I explore on horseback one of the worst hit areas of the park.


Mist Creek ValleyFor an Easterner, whose only taste of wilderness may be a hike through the forest not far from the main road through a nearby state park, horsepacking through the vast wilderness of eastern Yellowstone National Park is the adventure of a lifetime. Under normal conditions, the landscape here borders on the spectacular, but after the disastrous fires of 1988, it took on a ghostly aura that I won't soon forget.

Our party of 15, an assortment of experienced and relatively inexperienced riders, began its trek in the brilliant sunshine of late August. That first day we rode out across Pelican Valley, a broad expanse of meadows traversed by a meandering stream stretching to Pelican Cone on the east side of Yellowstone National Park. The cool verdant landscape, rich in a hundred shades of green, consisted of lush soggy meadow grasses that seemed to go on forever.

A firefighter sprays water on a severe ground fire.This was a far cry from the searing heat and power of the fires that swept through this area during the late summer of 1988. Twenty-five thousand firefighters, assisted by 4,000 U.S. military personnel, 400 fire trucks, and 120 Chinook helicopters, all gathered to fight one of the worst fires in the history of the West in shifts lasting as long as 14 hours. Aircraft dropped 14 million gallons of fire retardant chemicals and 10 million gallons of water on the flames. Crews fought through old growth, new growth and meadow, the calico pattern left by fires of other times.

The Yellowstone fires of 1988 together formed the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Yellowstone National Park. Starting as many smaller individual fires, the flames spread quickly out of control with increasing winds and drought and combined into one large conflagration, as if the Devil, himself, had unleashed a mighty firestorm upon the Earth. , On September 8, officials closed the park to all but emergency personnel for the first time in its history after fires nearly destroyed two major visitor installations. Only the arrival of cool and moist weather in the late autumn brought the fires to an end. Over 793,000 acres burned to varying degrees of crispness. The cost of the firefighting effort soared to over $120 million.

A ground fire climbs trees to the top of the canopy.Firefighters called August 20 "Black Saturday" because of the 150,000 acres devastated by fire. In some places the smoke became so dense it blotted out the sun. Between June and August, nearly 250 different fires, seven of which destroyed 95 percent of the total burned area, began in Yellowstone Park and the surrounding National Forests. Dry storms with fierce winds and lightening merged smaller fires together. On that awesome day, more land burned in Yellowstone Park than the combination of all the fires since its creation.

The wind driven flames jumped roads and firelines while burning embers started new fires a mile ahead of the main ones. What started on July 9 as one fire along Mist Creek in the Park's Lake District in the Absaroka Mountains eventually grew to 13 that burned until snow fell in September.

Two days after the Mist Fire began, the Clover Fire started in the same area, eventually combining on July 20 with the first to create the mighty Clover Mist Fire. As it burned through some of the Park’s most rugged terrain, it became difficult for firefighters to control. Eventually, this fire consumed over 140,000 acres.

According to fire ecologist Don Despain of the National Biological Service, what drove the fires was a system of fire cells. "As one would send sparks and firebrands downwind, these would ignite, starting new ones. Burning vigorously, these new cells sucked air and flames from the parent cell. With time and surges of wind, flame and energy traveled back and forth among the cells driving the fire."

"Night winds were another adversary," he said. "running from high ridges down along the river and creek drainages, cascading like airy rapids, waking smoldering fires and bearing them downstream. Small fuels like needles and twigs absorbed almost no moisture during nighttime periods of higher humanity thus adding to the process. The updraft of wind blew fire down the valleys. Whole mountains went up in flames."

All fire fighters could do was walk away. Despite their valiant efforts, fires invaded thousands of acres in and around the world's oldest national park.

A cold front moves in across Pelican Creek Valley.As a cold front moved in, the sky over Pelican Valley turned battleship gray and grew darker with menacing clouds as lightning streaked bright white on the horizon. Loud claps of thunder roared through the valley. Large chunks of hail pelted us, scaring both horses and riders. We rode through rain storms, one after another.

We stopped to put our ponchos on. Everything seemed to spook the horses, from lightning to flapping ponchos to the backpacks on passing hiker's backs.

Lightning also ignited the great Clover-Mist Fire on Pelican Ridge, just ahead of us. It was one of the worst days of that summer when cold fronts came whistling through with high winds and lightning but almost no rain. A wall of flame blazed up out of nowhere and the battle between Mother Nature and Man had begun. Soon wind-driven fires in Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area advanced into 160,000 new acres, 62,000 inside the park.

Riding in the forest through Mist Creek Pass.We continued on without seeking shelter until we came to a Ranger Control Cabin for lunch. We paused briefly to eat our soggy sandwiches in the dampness and drizzle before mounting up and heading out into the highlands.

After leaving Pelican Valley, the trail climbed sharply up the side of Pelican Ridge, one of the places where the fires started. Known as the Clover Fire, it would eventually merge with the Mist Creek Fire down the valley to become one of the fiercest. Though the trail was steep, it was but a precursor to the treacherous terrain over which we were to travel in the days ahead. The carcasses of burned Debris litters the forest floor in the aftermath of the fires. trees littered the path and the ride was slow going. By the time we reached the top, it felt as if we had left life as we know it and transcended into the eerie dank remains of Hell after the fires had died out.

The highlight of that first afternoon was the ride through the burned out forest up through Mist Creek Pass, past hundreds of still blackened tree trunks. Here and there saplings poked through the ashes struggling to gain a foothold on life. Charred tree trunks lay piled like Pick-Up-Sticks as far as the eye could see. A pall hung over the landscape. We heard nothing–no birds, no small animals, only the whistle of the ever-chilling wind which interrupted the sight of the landscape, a vertical blind of bright orange, silver grey and black. And when it wasn't blowing–silence.

No one uttered a word. It was if we were traveling through a cemetery. I could almost hear the screams of the trees as they were eaten alive by the fire. All stood in some twisted form of perpetual agony. The wind blew strong here, for there was nothing to break it.

Next: Day 1

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