Originally published in Points West magazine
Understanding the Yellowstone Fires of 1988, Part 1
How the Fires Affected American Culture and How Culture Affected the Fires
By John Clayton
What do the fires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 have to do with Vietnam, or with classic western movies? Sometimes culture is as valuable as science in explaining how people interpret news of devastating events such as the fires. John Clayton explains.
For many people in the Rockies and northern plains, the Yellowstone fires of 1988 are a watershed event like the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the 9/11 attacks. Distinct memories of the freakish weather, the smoky haze, or the national media attention lock the summer in time. But where the Kennedy assassination now has a place in history, representing an end of innocence ushering in the maelstrom of the 1960s, and 9/11 likewise represents the kickoff to the war on terror, how did the fires impact society? In his A Fire History of America, historian Stephen Pyne wrote that the enduring narrative of the Big Blowup wildfire of August 1910 (a deadly forest fire across northeast Washington state, the panhandle of Idaho, and western Montana) made it a meaningful event, but 1988 “left the interpretation of the fires—so vast they just had to mean something—unresolved.”
I searched for resolution during a week studying the 1988 print media collection in the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center for the West in Cody, Wyoming. I saw how some media outlets—especially regional ones—accurately portrayed the evolution of ecological understanding that led to a shift in fire management philosophy, the so-called “let-burn” policy. I saw how other media outlets gave equal time to non-scientists who doubted both this philosophy and the government’s ability to implement it effectively. In general, media coverage of the fires’ science was better than I expected.
But what if the controversy wasn’t really about science? In the language of print media coverage, I found a surprising indicator of cultural importance: references to Vietnam.
The events of 1988
After a wet April and May, thunderstorms in June of 1988 ignited wildfires across Greater Yellowstone as they do every year. Consistent with a policy that had succeeded for fifteen years, the National Park Service did not actively suppress remote wildfires that did not threaten structures or people. And many of those fires halted on their own. But soon, unusually hot, dry weather with incredible winds created dangerous conditions. Several fires burned uncontrollably. By July 21, Yellowstone was suppressing all fires within its borders. However, ignitions continued both inside the park and in the surrounding national forests—and the different agencies fought those fires with varying techniques, fitful coordination, and little overall success.
On July 23, the Shoshone fire approached Yellowstone’s Grant Village complex, prompting its evacuation and national media attention. Firefighters saved all the buildings except for a campground restroom. Then, crisis apparently averted, many national reporters headed home. By August 5, Tom Brokaw announced on NBC, “The danger from fires in Yellowstone National Park is over.” But in the backcountry, fires continued to ignite, burn, merge together, and stymie suppression efforts. Containment lines failed. Fires jumped roads, rivers, and canyons. Rain never arrived. Experts’ predictions of fire behavior proved laughably inadequate. On August 20, “Black Saturday,” fires raged across more than 150,000 acres in a single day.
Reporters returned, now sniffing for scandal. Was Yellowstone ruined? Wasn’t this a failure? Who was responsible? They were often uninformed, and ecologists did a poor job of explaining the science. Within scientific circles, the intellectual revolution that came to see fire as a natural process—part of the ecosystem—had been completed by the early 1970s. But the general public was ignorant, and scientists were ignorant of their ignorance. Tensions resulted, especially on September 7, the day a fire nearly burned the Old Faithful Inn.
In mid-September the weather cooled. Snows put out the fires. The overall toll had been amazingly light: Only two firefighters died in accidents outside the park, but there were no fatalities with the 9,000-plus deployed inside its boundaries. Firefighters saved most buildings, including all the architecturally important ones. Most wild animals survived, and the ecological effects—the rebirth of grasses, forests, and ecosystems—were, if anything, stronger than scientists had predicted. Subsequent tourism increased.
In the decades since, it has thus become easy to see the controversies of 1988 as simply a media failure. Reporters and the general public didn’t understand the science, and were often riled up over nothing. But in writing their first draft of history, journalists are not merely reporting on science. They are also reporting on culture.
The fires’ parallels to Vietnam
On Black Saturday, fire behavior stymied the experts and demonstrated the government’s inability to control this nuisance enemy in the forest. In his book Media and Apocalypse, media scholar Conrad Smith called it “fire management’s Vietnam.” Coverage had made the metaphor explicit during the summer. For example, on August 28, the Billings [MT] Gazette editorialized, “Yellowstone National Park has come under fire, and tourists and park workers have been evacuated as soldiers were evacuated from Saigon.”
Comments such as these reflected not so much the news itself as the cultural context in which it played out. The 1980s were a time of repositioning American understanding of the Vietnam War. While it was happening, the war had seemed to be about American failure. By failing to defeat this lesser enemy, America was failing in both its big-picture vision of anti-Communist containment, and the small-picture morality of avoiding atrocities and war crimes. However, in the 1980s, leaders such as Ronald Reagan encouraged a new narrative. In it, the war was honorable, and the only real failures were insufficient domestic support of the troops. This played out in popular culture, as swaggering movie heroes like Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo battled bureaucratic superiors as much as they did Vietnamese soldiers.
Indeed, producers of 1980s Vietnam movies often framed the films as westerns. Both Rambo in the First Blood series, and Chuck Norris’s James Braddock in the Missing in Action series, are rogue, lonely gunmen surrounded by savages in what amounts to Indian Territory. Their quests to rescue prisoners of war reinvigorate age-old Indian captivity narratives. In the 1970s, when the Vietnam War appeared to be a moral quagmire, western movies reeked of imperialism and fared poorly. But in the 80s, moviemakers could reinvent them in this new setting. Then, the 1988 fires erupted, presenting an opportunity to bring that new moral certainty back to the West.
Thus, many letters to the editor and man-on-the-street quotes regarding the fires in Yellowstone expressed sentiments amounting to “Let the firefighters do their jobs,” while the Park Service imposed rules of engagement. For example, it forbade the use of bulldozers to build fire containment lines in Yellowstone’s wild backcountry. From a scientific perspective, the policy made sense, because a bulldozed line would create a scar that would long outlast the effects of a fire. Building one to contain a wilderness fire was like destroying a village in order to save it—and given the crazy fire behavior, containment lines weren’t working anyway.
But building containment lines was a demonstration of technological power, akin to the ones that had been forbidden in Vietnam, and so culturally, the policy felt like another failure to let the troops win. A grunt on the fire lines told Time magazine in its September 5, 1988, issue, “We could have stopped this. They won’t let us.” The quote involved debatable assumptions, and probably was not representative of most firefighters’ views. Still the magazine, recognizing a Vietnam-style sentiment, ignored any nuance and made it the story’s headline.
Such arguments dominated the summer of 1988, to the point where Casper Star-Tribune columnist John Perry Barlow vigorously denounced them on October 1. “To propose that the fires of Yellowstone could have been prevented by more bulldozers repeats the lie we tell when we say we’d have won in Vietnam if we’d only tried.” Whether you agree or disagree with Barlow’s view, it’s clear that he was arguing as much about Vietnam as about Yellowstone.
While conservatives used the 1980s to reimagine the Vietnam War with a more vigorous application of frontier mythology and American strengths, liberals in that decade pondered how to extend to other realms what they saw as the war’s lessons. If failure in Vietnam represented the perils of American hegemony and expansionism, how should we learn from that in addressing, say, the environment? This was the cultural context behind the “let-burn” philosophy: Maybe America didn’t need to control every remote wildfire, any more than it needed to control every third-world government. Furthermore, bigger-and-better technology wasn’t always capable of providing that control.
In popular culture, the 1986 movie Aliens (the second one in the series) involved a rescue team headed for inhospitable terrain where its impressive firepower proves worthless. In many other 80s movies, strength and technology can’t defeat villains, so heroes must step in vigilante-style. In the movies, a villain’s ability to defeat stronger, better-organized foes comes in part from their character: irrational, hysterical, mad, and alien. Again, they resemble how Hollywood portrayed Indians in old westerns. Furthermore, that’s also a good description of wildfire behavior. It’s easy to see how the public wanted to classify fires in that villain role.
Thus, cultural objections arose to ecologists’ claims that fire was not evil—that it was instead a natural part of the ecosystem. Readers and viewers, and indeed many journalists, had trouble getting to a point where they could even evaluate the science, because it was hidden by the predominant societal narrative. Fire was evil in part because Smokey Bear had been telling us so for decades. But it was also evil because the culture of the time villainized behavior of exactly its type.
Problems we can’t solve
The 1970s were a troubling time for American culture because we suddenly faced problems that we couldn’t solve. In addition to Vietnam, there was the energy crisis, the Iranian hostage crisis, runaway inflation, the threat of nuclear destruction, and a host of environmental/pollution crises such as Love Canal and Three Mile Island. Disillusionment in government’s ability to solve these crises—given scandals such as Watergate—only added to the glum attitude. America had never met a problem it couldn’t solve, but suddenly unsolvable problems seemed to be everywhere. The 1980s became a backlash: America was eager to prove that it could, for example, get inflation under control, drill for oil domestically, intervene successfully in Central America, and clean up hazardous waste sites with a Superfund.
Consequently, the 1988 Yellowstone fires—the first high-profile wildfires since these cultural cataclysms—posed a cultural question. Is this a problem that we can solve? If the 80s meme extended to the Yellowstone backcountry, then American society should be able to put these fires out. Yet the newly surfacing ecological paradigm suggested that we shouldn’t even try our hardest.
The so-called “let-burn” policy was a hot topic all summer, and much has been made of erroneous television reports that it was still in place in August and September of 1988. But attention to the idea should not be surprising, because this policy was new, different, and counter-intuitive. It made its first appearance in public (as opposed to among scientists) at a time when a superficial reading of events easily challenged it. Furthermore, in the public mind it was tied to the light-on-the-land suppression policy, which did continue throughout the summer inside park boundaries. Taken together, one could see the policies as suggesting that remote wildfires were a problem not worth solving. Yet as smoke choked the region, and fires eventually approached major tourist destinations, the problem did seem worth solving. Only if you immersed yourself in the issue could you learn the sad truth: It wasn’t even able to be solved.
What would have happened if the Park Service had actively suppressed every fire ignition from the beginning of the summer? The hoped-for answer—the one that fit the 80s culture—was that all the fires would have been put out. But such an answer was an illusion. In 1989, Barry Davis of the Shoshone National Forest said, “Even if there had been no prescribed [‘let-burn’] fires last summer , and all the suppression activity had been perfect, we would still have burned close to a million acres throughout the Greater Yellowstone area.” (The fires’ final perimeters were 1.4 million to 1.7 million acres, with 794,000 acres within the park.) Conversely, in an Audubon magazine article that same year, journalist Ted Williams asked Steve Frye, who had been the park’s fire operations chief, “What if you’d just let the fires go?” Frye told him that they might have burned through an additional 10 or 20 percent of forestland.
These projections show that unrestrained suppression would have had only limited results—at theoretical best reducing perimeters by 41 percent. After all, it’s hard to fight fires in rugged, remote terrain. Ignitions continued all summer long, both inside and outside the park. Fires throughout the summer jumped all sorts of natural and man-made containment lines, roads and rivers, and even the half-mile-wide Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. At one point in the summer, according to National Geographic, only one mile of fire line held for every twenty dug. Regardless of what the culture wanted, the Yellowstone fires were a problem that no one could solve. Culturally, the fires were forcing the nation to come to grips with the limits of its invincibility, fighting a last gasp against a message it had been resisting since the early 1970s.
In the next Points West Online post, John Clayton continues his discussion of the Yellowstone fires and their effects on American culture, as well as the effects of culture on the fires. He suggests, “It wasn’t even about how to live in a post-Vietnam world. The Yellowstone fires grabbed the nation’s attention precisely because they were about Yellowstone—because Yellowstone had come to embody a set of deep national values.”
About the author
John Clayton is an independent journalist, essayist, and corporate ghostwriter based in Montana. His articles appear regularly in Montana Quarterly, Horizon Air, Montana Magazine, and dozens of regional newspapers through the Writers on the Range syndicate. His books include Small Town Bound, Stories from Montana’s Enduring Frontier, and The Cowboy Girl, a biography of the Montana/Wyoming novelist, journalist, and homesteader Caroline Lockhart, who owned the Cody Enterprise at one time. Clayton was the 2016 Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Montana State University-Billings. He was also a Center of the West research fellow.