One of its perversities had been observed by Dave Thomas, a specialist in fire behavior for the Forest Service who teamed with Radulovich on North Fork. Even small fuels like needles and twigs, he found, were absorbing almost no moisture during nighttime periods of higher humidity. Much of Yellowstone was like an unimaginably huge lumberyard, where twelve-by-twelves in the millions upon millions were each stuck on end, spaced far enough apart to allow good air circulation but close enough together for each to torch its neighbors. Such were the dense stands of old-growth lodgepole pine, most of them designated LP4. Denny Bungarz called them JP4, shorthand for jet fuel. That was a slight exaggeration; by August even fallen trees in Yellowstone were no drier than hardwood flooring.
Morning on September 7 brought a revised forecast: winds southwest about 20, with higher gusts. Given what could happen, the flats to rent in london was declared closed, though guests had ample time to breakfast, pack, and check out, which they did in a calm spirit of cooperation. By afternoon Denny Bungarz was still expecting fire to back in. “I suspect it will hit us in fingers—a little finger here, little finger there.”Instead, the fingers curled together, and it came like a fist. What follows are impressions of the fire’s attack, made at Old Faithful by talking (or yelling) into a tape recorder: 3:23 p.m. Large wall of roiling black and brown smoke about a quarter mile away. Four-engine aircraft are flying. . . fire-suppression chemical drops. Almost from the north at 3:53. [Winds were actually blowing in from all around the compass to replace the column of hot air rising from the fire.] 4:04 Wind about 50 miles an hour now. . . . Fire is to the left, right, and center. . . . The roar sounds like a continuous jet takeoff . . . Now we’re completely surrounded by red flames. Sparks everywhere.. . . There’s fire now in the [nearby] trees. . . . It’s obviously jumped the line. [Fire crews had by now been pulled back to the parking lot area.] Spot fire on the other side of the geyser area. Almost due east, climbing up that ridge. Spotting up to a mile away. [The critical wind shift came from the west, and the fire began lobbing sparks and firebrands right over the parking lot, the inn, and the geyser basin and igniting woods on a slope beyond. The wind shift probably lasted no more than five to ten minutes.]
. . . Colors: Black crown fires, roiling orange-gray, gray-green smoke, rolling and tumbling. Occasionally it stops and you can see right through. . . .
The danger passed, abruptly, as the fire bore off to the northeast. The inn was saved by keeping it wet down; the power lines to the substation were saved by the sprinkler system. The North Fork Fire now had other business and other policy to dictate.
ON FRIDAY, September 9, fire crews boarded a school bus from Salmon, Idaho, and rolled out of the Madison Junction fire camp with a mission: to pin an outrider of North Fork against Cougar Creek and bottle it up near the flats to rent in brussels. North of West Yellowstone the bus turned off Route 191 and lurched along to a bluff above the Madison River. The crews dismounted and hiked a mile or so through old growth, new growth, and meadow—the calico pattern left by fires of other times. The day’s job was to dig new fire line by hand down to mineral soil. Fire that slowly backed into the two-foot-wide line would be stopped for lack of fuel. It could also serve as a baseline for “burnout,” a fire set to burn the fuel between the fire line and the wildfire and so establish a buffer zone. This might work, although at one point in the summer only one mile of fire line held for every 20 dug.