The fires had already started by the first of July. There were a handful. Storm Creek started in the wilderness northeast of Yellowstone National Park. The Fan fire smoldered in the park's northwestern corner. The Shoshone fire was working in the southern part of the park, near the lake of the same name. 

There were fire camps and the fire camps need supplies. Stuff had to be picked up from places like Bozeman, Jackson and sometimes as far as Missoula. Batteries, chainsaw hardware, fire equipment. To run supplies, you needed a pulse and a vehicle.

Bob Kopland had both and not much else to do. He lived in Gardiner. He was 38, and he was working construction. No kids, no pets, no major responsibilities. He saw easy money, so he signed a contract with a camp at Grant Village. He was paid for his time and the miles he put on his pickup, a copper-colored Ford F-150. 

"That was a pretty good deal to be able to do that because you're making a fair amount of money," he said.

After a couple weeks, someone asked whether he'd rather drive a fire engine. He'd been helping out when he wasn't driving, running chainsaws and pumps. People there knew he was a volunteer firefighter and could run a fire truck. 

It was a pay cut, but he liked driving fire trucks. He parked his pickup and climbed into an engine.

He didn't go home for a while. 

The year was 1988, four digits that would become synonymous with massive wildfires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Nearly 794,000 acres burned within the park's borders, roughly 36 percent of the park. Including the fires outside its borders, closer to 1.6 million acres fried, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. 

It probably doesn't require an explanation. Thick smoke that lasted months. Evacuations. Hordes of firefighters, not to mention television trucks and reporters. Never mind the presidential election, the Olympics, or Kirk Gibson's World Series home run. Especially for those who lived here, 1988 was about fire.

People criticized the park's fire policy. The park tried to defend it. People wondered whether it was the end of Yellowstone as they knew it. It was, but it wasn't the end of Yellowstone. Three decades later, it looks different. But it's hard to find evidence of the fires unless you know what to look for, like lodgepole pine stands that are much shorter than other lodgepole stands. 

"I think that many visitors to Yellowstone don't even see the fires anymore," said Monica Turner, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin who does research in the park. "I think they just see expanses of young trees."

But the season remains a significant moment for fire researchers and historians. It wasn't the first fire season to explode, but it's the most famous. It tested the park's capacity for allowing natural fire and its ability to defend the practice. It also served as an omen of the coming era. 

In the last three decades, climate change has extended fire seasons. Big fires are bigger and more intense. Nationwide, total acres burned has surpassed 10 million in two of the past three years. Suppression costs have topped $1 billion annually since 2010. 

"Yellowstone caught everyone's attention," said Cathy Whitlock, an ecology professor at Montana State University. "But now we've seen large fires in every state across the West." 

At the time, many were just wondering whether it would end. 

The Policy

The idea of allowing natural fires to burn was well established by 1988. Several federal agencies were moving toward allowing some natural fire, viewing it as a force for good. This ran counter to the conventional wisdom of the previous decades, when fire was merely a villain worth vanquishing. 

Yellowstone National Park established a natural fire policy in 1972. Under the policy, it could allow naturally caused wildfires to burn as long as the blazes didn't threaten people or buildings. It worked fine for the first 16 years. From 1972 through 1987, natural fires burned roughly 34,000 acres without significant vitriol.

Then 1988 went dry and the fires — more than 50 in all — became enormous. The policy of allowing natural fire became a target. Locals demanded fire suppression, fearing for their safety and the future. 

"That was a long, drawn-out, very nerve-wracking summer," said Clyde Seely, a business owner in West Yellowstone. 

Stephen Pyne, an author and fire historian at Arizona State University, said 1988 was a "missed opportunity to explain to the public and the American fire community about how actually are we going to" restore natural fire. He said officials should have been more clear about their limitations in controlling fire and the plan for when they would intervene. 

"You've got to be ready for these kinds of unexpected big events," Pyne said. 

The park's natural fire policy was suspended that summer and full suppression was ordered on every fire burning in the park. Firefighters came from all over. California, Nevada, the military. And then there were the locals, people like Bob Kopland.

The Chaos

Kopland said he had two days off between July and late September. His sleeping quarters varied. First it was the Grant Village Jail. Later it was a cabin. At one point it was a hotel in West Yellowstone. Sometimes it was the bed of the truck. 

He didn't mind. He was fascinated.

"The difference between a good firefighter and a pyro is a very thin line," Kopland said. 

He was familiar with the work, having run engines before, but he wasn't familiar with anything else about that summer. The sheer size of the fires, mushroom smoke clouds, the logistics. 

He liked seeing new firefighting equipment, like the fancy engines federal agencies used, and he liked being part of it all. 

"Hell, this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Kopland said. 

The fires moved well. Maybe too well. Rivers and roads meant nothing. The flames jumped them. Often, thousands of acres went up in a day. On Aug. 20, total acreage burned doubled to more than 480,000. It would become known as Black Saturday. 

"It looked like Armageddon that day," Kopland said. 

Even nightfall, known to slow most fires, was often no help. 

"They were ripping until midnight a lot of times," said John Lounsbury, the park's Lake district ranger at the time. 

Lounsbury had been running the Lake district's ranger division for about three years. He took over after a consolidation of ranger districts. Early on in the summer of 1988, he didn't have much to do — the fires were in other districts, but his time came. 

Being a middle manager, his presence was often required at incident command meetings, where officials from the various agencies involved met to discuss what they'd do next. He spent a lot of time shuffling between meetings for the Clover-Mist and North Fork fires, which were headquartered in different parts of the park.

"I did a lot of driving back and forth," he said. "It just got crazier and crazier."

Sometimes, he'd show up with marching orders — ask for this, ask for that. At one meeting outside the park's east entrance, he had to ask for some fire engines to be moved from there to Old Faithful. Upon hearing the request, Lounsbury said, the fire boss unleashed a string of profanities. He blamed the National Park Service for the fires and vowed to never send the engines to Old Faithful. 

"I obviously was not a very popular figure," Lounsbury said. 

At times, residents of gateway towns felt they had to do the firefighting themselves. That happened in West Yellowstone in early September, when it looked like the North Fork fire might roar across the park's western border and tear into town. 

The blaze, ultimately the largest of the summer at 531,182 acres, started in late July with an errant cigarette on Forest Service land in Idaho. It was directly south of West Yellowstone, and soon headed for the park. It was prolific, torching more than 10,000 acres in a day multiple times. 

By early September, it was inching toward West Yellowstone's eastern edge. Seely, who owns Three Bear Lodge, went to a meeting with fire officials one night and suggested setting up sprinkler pipe between the town and the park line to create a fire break. 

"We didn't feel comfortable with the ability the park had to put it out before it got to West Yellowstone," he said. 

Officials agreed that setting up sprinklers was a good idea, so Seely made a call. He used connections in the Mormon church to mobilize a massive volunteer force. By 6 a.m. the next morning, farmers throughout the region were loading pipe onto trailers and heading for West Yellowstone.

Roughly 150 volunteers teamed up to set the pipe — 16 lines east of town, a half-dozen on the north side and a half-dozen on the south side — and connect it to the Madison River, where a pump drew water. 

The town was spared, but the pipe would have another job before it was hauled back to the fields. The fire began running for Old Faithful. Fire officials asked Seely to bring the pipe and the pumps over there in hopes of saving the historic buildings and the power lines.

Volunteers had it set up just in time and the sprinklers were running as the fire tore through, helping save the buildings and the power lines. Embers clogged the pump after the flames were gone. 

Snow showed up in September. Some bits of fire smoldered a while longer, but the party mostly ended. The season was finally over. The flames became a memory. 

The After

Lounsbury was relieved when the fires ended. So was Seely, but he worried the tourists wouldn't come back. They did — park statisticians counted more than 2.64 million visits in 1989, a record at the time. 

Scientists began watching what came next. Roy Renkin, a park ecologist, was there during 1988. He thinks of the summer in three parts, each corresponding to the job he was doing at the time.

At first, he was on the ground, taking hourly weather readings. Next, he was in the air, mapping the fires in daily flyovers. Toward the end, he was back on the ground, quantifying parts of forest that park officials thought would burn.

They called these inventoried areas "vegetation plots," and the areas have helped them understand how forests respond to fire over the years. The answer is quite well. Lodgepole pine trees returned in some places. A wide variety of plant species showed up in others. Aspen trees started showing up in places they'd never been seen. 

Renkin said the regrowth and reinvention of the forests show that fire is just another part of the ecosystem, just a cog in the natural machine. 

"The sun comes up in the day. The moon comes up at night. The seasons change," Renkin said. "You get disturbances like this in the forest. And the forests know how to deal with it."

For Kopland, the immediate aftermath was jarring. Returning to the calm of civilization was weird. He remembers feeling almost useless. 

"It was like ... a drunk trying to sober up," he said. "I'd been going seven days a week, eight hours a day or more. And it just stopped."

He didn't come back to a job. Didn't need to, having saved up some fire earnings. He did plenty of grouse hunting that fall, which helped him readjust. 

Fire had already fascinated him before 1988, but the year fortified his love for it. He worked in the county water department until just a few years ago, but he stuck with the Gateway Hose Company, Gardiner's fire department. He's the chief there now, and 1988 still sticks in his mind. 

"It was just part of a history-making event, and you knew it," Kopland said. 

He kept his pickup, the copper-colored Ford, for another year or so. It stayed parked at Grant Village while he was driving the engine, bathing in smoke for months. 

Later, after it was all over, it remained a reminder of the fires, especially when the humidity got high. When that happened, he said, it always smelled of wood smoke. 

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.