Bozeman Daily Chronicle
June 29, 2008
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – It started out dry and then it got drier. The rains stayed away, but the wind showed up in a fury and it stayed mad all summer, puffing out its cheeks over and over again. There was lightning all over the place. An outfitter got careless. So did a woodcutter. By July, the fires took over.
Nearly 800,000 acres – more than a third of the park – burned during the summer of 1988. It seemed like the fires were everywhere. You could count the smoke columns. Two, three, four at a time on some days. Ominous mushroom clouds big enough to create their own weather.
Millions of ancient trees went up like matchsticks and the smoke drifted across the nation. Scorched twigs and pine needles wafted 20,000 feet high in the smoke columns, then fluttered to Earth 100 miles away. Nerves frayed. Tempers exploded.
The summer of 1988 reintroduced America to wildfire. Big fire. Major fire. Unstoppable fire. Fire that hadn’t been seen in decades.
Such fire was no stranger to the continent. From Maine to California, wildfires had destroyed communities and killed thousands of people, burned millions of acres in decades past.
In Wisconsin, the 1871 Peshtigo fires burned nearly 4 million acres and killed 1,500 people.
The Great Burn of 1910 scorched 3 million acres of Montana and Idaho and killed 85 people.
But these horrid memories lived mostly in the distant past, before slurry bombers and helicopters and chain saws, before Smokey the Bear, before television could bring the flames to your home every night. Could these things still happen?
The summer of 1988 showed that they could.
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