YNPFireWegnerPix

Gary Wegner of Libby, Mont., shows the strain of a long day of battling the Yellowstone Fires as they swept through Grant Village. The iconic photo of Wegner, who now lives in Bozeman, would be picked up through the Associated Press and by USA Today.

Editor's note: This article first published in the Post Register on July 21, 2013.


Minute after minute, foam gushed from the nozzle of the fire hose held by 19-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter Gary Wegner.

The white, thick goo cooled surfaces steadily threatened by the Yellowstone National Park fires of 1988.

It coated everything: nearby brush and trees, historical structures like the Old Faithful Inn, even Wegner.

His gloved fingers, dark hair and fire-retardant clothing were speckled with the stuff.

But it was Wegner’s eyes that said everything.

They conceded fatigue.

The now- 25-year-old photo of the Libby, Mont., native was captured by Post Register photographer Robert Bower as Wegner and others battled blazes near Grant Village.

The public’s response to the image — and the summer of fire in America’s park — was overwhelming.

The park burns

After the first fire of the summer started at Storm Creek on June 14, 1988 — barely a hint of what was to come — several more caused damage in earnest throughout the month and all through July.

After two months of some of the hottest and driest days on record, the nation’s first national park began re-evaluating how it approached the summer’s fire management.

July 21 marked the 30th anniversary of park officials’ decision to start suppressing all fires in Yellowstone. All told, 36 percent — 793,880 acres — of the park burned that summer.

The amount of destruction, pegged at $120 million at the time, would catapult the park — and its fire management policies — into the national spotlight. The fight was documented by hundreds of reporters, photographers and curious visitors as they descended on the landscape.

Wegner was one of 25,000 firefighters called into the park that summer — the largest firefighting effort the country had ever seen.

“It was so many people that they sent to that fire that it almost felt disorganized,” he said in a 2013 interview. “Communication wasn’t anything like it is today. I know we didn’t have cellphones, that’s for sure.”

Roy Renkin, Yellow­stone vegetation specialist, began working for the park in 1979. Before that, he fought fires in Yellowstone while studying biology at a college in Pennsylvania.

He’s seen summer fire seasons come and go throughout his 34-year career, but the fires in 1988 were a once-in-a-lifetime event, he said in 2013.

“All the way through July 1988, we were optimistic,” he said. “We expected to get that monsoonal moisture we always get in July to provide some relief, some help. It never really came; we never got it.”

Wegner and Renkin agreed the fires exuded peculiar behavior. They burned hot, of course, but many of them were even more difficult to manage because they were crown fires. That’s when a fire advances with great speed, jumping from the tops of trees rather than along the ground.

“One day you’d be at this spot — this beautiful, thick forest — and the next day it would be black, charred,” Wegner said. “It was our job to be the ones trying to just maintain, to just keep the historical buildings from burning down.”

For almost 100 years, park fire managers were quick to put out fires within Yellowstone’s boundaries.

But in 1972, ecologists urged park officials to change its outlook, adopting a policy that would allow lightning-caused fires to burn unless it threatened structures or human life.

In 1988, that policy was still very much in place — until the July 21 decision to act otherwise.

“The reality is that when fires are big like that, they don’t go out because you say you’re now going to suppress them,” Renkin said. “There were some political ramifications behind (making that decision), behind trying to control these fires. Everyone fighting them knew the only way to control them was to get out of their way and protect the structures that might be threatened.”

On Aug. 20, 1988, dubbed “Black Saturday,” everything changed.

With high winds and the driest of dry weather, the fires burning in the park doubled, scorching more than 480,000 acres.

“There was really crazy fire behavior,” Wegner said. “It was so hot it was baking the paint on our engine. I remember thinking, ‘Our engine crew is thin,’ and an old, ex-Navy Seal was the other guy in the truck with me.

“He just said, ‘Well! We’re going for it.’…We sprayed a lot of foam on a lot of buildings.”

Public perception

Images of the battle filled newspapers, evening TV news and the public’s perception.

At the beginning of the summer, visitors came out in droves. But by August, Renkin said, many stayed away after large-scale evacuations (4,000 people were evacuated from Grant Village on July 23) and uncertainty took their toll.

Wegner still marvels at his photo’s reach.

After the fire season, he joined the Navy.

“When I left, my mom was getting these letters … letter after letter,” he said. “(The photo) was picked up by The Associated Press and made a bunch of papers. When I got out of boot camp, she had heard from people all over the world. … There was a letter she read all the way from Germany.”

People asked his mom incessantly, “Are you related to the boy in the photo?”

He was recognized at his Orlando, Fla.,-based boot camp that winter.

Years later, friends on Facebook — acquaintances he hadn’t seen in decades — messaged him to tell him they remembered the image.

“I don’t remember anyone even asking for my name,” he said. “I just remember thinking when I saw it, ‘When did you take that?’ ”

Renkin said he enjoys taking visitors around the park’s burn sites to show the long-term devastation predicted in 1988 is far from reality today.

“In my mind it just happened yesterday,” he said. “A lot of people here wish it would go away, but 1988 is in the minds of the fire community forever. The general public uses that year as a yardstick.

“(New fires are) always referenced back to Yellowstone. They always ask, ‘How does this compare to 1988?’ ”

Renkin said a record number of visitors came out to the park in 1989. They had come to see what they had been shown on TV; they had come to see what was documented in their newspapers.

“The American public had come see their park,” he said. “They had to see it for themselves.”

And 25 years later, they still do.

There are vibrant post-burned areas of the forest where specialists in fire ecology said it would take 100 years to see any hint of regrowth.

They were wrong, Renkin said.

“We didn’t know then as much as we thought we knew,” he said. “We know a little bit more now. … Mother Nature is totally in charge.

“We think we know it all, but this reinforces to me that when you pay attention, the learning capabilities in this forest are unlimited.”

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