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Flames Destroy Yellowstone Buildings; Missing Montana Men Found

September 8, 1988

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) _ Wind gusts to 85 mph fanned forest fires that gutted 17 buildings near Old Faithful, while two Montana men reported missing after flames engulfed their home were found today.

″Trees were just popping like matchsticks,″ said Robert Lee, a firefighter from Auburn, Ala. ″There were winds at least 85 mph.″

Temperatures here dropped into the 30s and winds died down overnight, and firefighters expected calmer weather through Saturday. Forecasters said a storm could bring rain or snow over the weekend.

Wildfires also forced the evacuations of 50 homes in the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming east of Yellowstone and two dozen homes and a Boy Scout camp near Boulder and Golden, Colo. Fire crews continued to protect two Montana towns near Yellowstone from a huge fire, and battled blazes in Idaho, California, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

In northwest Montana along the Flathead River, authorities had feared that a man and his brother were caught in the flames after refusing an evacuation order.

But the men were found this morning along the river corridor bordering Glacier National Park.

″They have been located and they are all right,″ said Madelyn Kempf, fire information officer.

Although federal officials have called this the worst fire season in 30 years, no fatalities have been directly attributed to the blazes, which have charred 3.65 million acres, an area larger than Connecticut.

Last month, a helicopter involved in battling a blaze in Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest crashed after losing power, killing a passenger, a Bureau of Land Management technician.

Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo., and others have criticized the Park Service for waiting too long to fight some of the fires because of a policy to allow fires in wilderness areas to burn for the benefits they bring to forests.

Wallop met Wednesday with Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel and urged William Penn Mott, director of the National Park Service, to resign.

The northwest Montana blaze, discovered Tuesday, expanded to an estimated 7,500 acres by early today and moved into Glacier National Park, where it burned a ranger station complex and numerous cabins.

Four hikers near the park’s Lower Quartz Lake were rescued by helicopter Wednesday afternoon after flames cut off their escape route and they drove their vehicle into the lake to save it.

More than 100 people who live in the area were evacuated, and two park campgrounds were evacuated.

At Yellowstone, tourist Ken Miller of Denver was one of more than 100 visitors who left the Old Faithful area in a convoy led by rangers Wednesday night as embers from the nearby 221,800-acre North Fork fire descended.

″I’ve been coming up here a long time,″ Miller said. ″Thank God I’ve got a lot of pictures of the way the park was, because I’ll never see it like that again.″

The fire is one of 13 major blazes covering more than 1 million acres in and around the 2.2 million-acre park.

Earlier, flames destroyed two cabins in the complex’s southern end, while embers carried by the winds ignited 14 guest cabins and a utility shed at the main part of the complex, said Fire Commander Denny Bungarz.

But because the fire exhausted fuel as it passed through, officials did not expect to see similar damaging flames again.

About 200 firefighters protected other structures, including the historic Old Faithful Inn, where a sprinkler line on the roof was activated. Firefighters also sprayed flame-retardant foam on the roof.

Overnight visitors to Old Faithful were asked to leave Wednesday morning. It was the first-ever evacuation of the most popular tourist attraction at the 116-year-old park in Wyoming’s northwest corner.

But park officials admitted day visitors until late Wednesday afternoon, when stiff winds whipped up a blaze on the area’s southern border and blew embers into the complex, igniting roofs of buildings.

″When that firestorm went through there, we had to move our people out of there,″ Bungarz said. ″When you can feel the heat inside your car, it’s time to move.″

East of Yellowstone, Shoshone forest officials evacuated at least 50 ranches and summer homes in a sparsely populated area because of rapid growth of the 260,000-acre Clover Mist fire.

But the National Weather Service said a storm front could carry significant rain or even snow for Wyoming this weekend, providing relief.

Along Yellowstone’s northern border, high winds drove a backfire along the northern edge of Cooke City and nearby Silver Gate. The fire singed the fringes of the Montana towns but created a buffer of charred timber in advance of the 119,000-acre Storm Creek-Hellroaring fire.

″Now, with the fuels burned out, at least on this side of the valley, there won’t be anything left to burn,″ said Bill Stalker, a fire information officer.

However, officials remained concerned that winds could shift and drive the main fire into dry, unburned timber south of the canyon towns by this weekend. The blaze remained about a mile from the towns Wednesday, officials said.

Firefighters sprayed foam on buildings in Cooke Pass, 2 1/2 miles east of Cooke City, and saved about 40 structures before the searing flames drove crews out.

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