MY WYOMING — by Bill Sniffin
Smoky times remind of state’s worst fires
As I write this, the beautiful view of the Wind River Mountains out of my window is obscured. It is so smoky we are leaving our windows shut because it smells like a brush fire a short distance away.
In this case, that brush fire is 1,000 miles away. Northern California and parts of Oregon and Washington are burning up.
This smoke is covering up towns all over Wyoming especially in the Big Horn Basin and Wind River Basin.
It is hard to find a city or town from Cheyenne to Evanston or Powell to Gillette in which smoke has not dominated the view. At least the sunsets and sunrises have been magnificent!
Here in Lander, we enjoyed one clear day between all the smoke from the northwest to local smoke from the Little Bob fire on the Wind River Indian Reservation. They are letting it burn and it is over 1,500 acres and growing.
These ash clouds also remind of a time 27 years ago when Yellowstone National Park literally burned up. Here is what I recall of that event:
Is this hell? Or is it Yellowstone? That was my exact thought as I piloted a small, single engine airplane over the vast expanse of Yellowstone National Park the first week of September, 1988, during the horrible fires that year.
Flying with me on that day was Larry Hastings, one of the best pilots and instructors in Wyoming history. Also along and helping take photos was Mike McClure, a legend in his own right, as a premier photographer.
Both men lived in Lander. We had been talking about making this flight for some time.
It was my bright idea. We had seen TV coverage of the fire but no one seemed to have a good aerial view. I always want to figure out a way to take a big picture in the easiest way possible and flying over the park seemed the best plan.
Hastings was aware of the altitude restrictions, which caused us to be quite high as we flew over the world’s oldest national park while it was literally burning up.
The view was both impressive and unimpressive. It was impressive because as far as the eye could see was smoke. It was unimpressive because it was impossible to make out landmarks. Not even the mountains were very visible.
What was visible were a large number of hotspots where fire would shoot 200 feet in the air. It was hot down there. The park I loved was going to be changed forever.
That event two and half decades ago was unprecedented in the history of the National Park Service. There were contrasting programs of fire suppression and “controlled burns” in place, which caused the people responsible for the park’s existence to be incapable of dealing with the conflagration.
Cities and towns in a wide circle around the park enjoyed the most colorful sunsets in history. Lander, which is a two-hour drive southeast from YNP, the evening views were unprecedented. It was an awful time for folks with respiratory problems. No wind and no rain could relieve these conditions.
Fighting the fires in 1988 cost $120 million which is $230 million in today’s dollars – almost a quarter of a billion dollars. It covered some 800,000 acres or over one third of the park.
Biggest fire was the North Fork fire, which was started July 22 by a cigarette dropped by a man cutting timber in the neighboring Targhee National Forest.
One of the most amazing scenes of this fire was when embers from it were sent airborne across the massive Lewis Lake by 80 mph winds setting new fires on the other side of the lake.
This complex of fires burned 140,000 acres and was finally extinguished when some welcome rains fell later that fall.
Stories about other parts of the park and the valiant effort of more than 13,000 firefighters, 120 helicopters and other aerial devices, plus National Guard and civilians detail bravery but were to no avail. Important structures like Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel were saved but efforts to stop the fires proved to be impossible.
Mother Nature wanted that fire to burn and it did until she was ready to put it out.
And that memorable day 27 years ago we were flying above a scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. I experienced a memory that I would both like to forget and yet, always recall.
Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written six books. His newest is Wyoming at 125, which is coming out in September. His books are available at www.wyomingwonders.com.