A fire near Yellowstone National Park that threatened Cooke City, Mont., last summer could have been snuffed out in its earliest stages, government officials say in new reports.
But another blaze, which almost burned the historic Old Faithful complex at the park and threatened West Yellowstone, Mont., was impossible to control, the reports said.In all, the 10 major fires that cut a swath of flames through Yellowstone burned about 706,000 acres. The latest report indicated the fires covered much less than the 1 million-acre estimate given in September.
The new figures, based on satellite pictures assessed last week, indicate that about 32 percent of the 2.2 million-acre park burned.
By underestimating drought conditions, Yellowstone firefighters missed an early opportunity to stop the Clover-Mist fire in the northeast corner of the park, which threatened Cooke City, an interagency review team said. Instead of their own observations, park and national forest officials relied on fire information gathered since the early 1970s, the report said.
The Clover and Mist fires eventually merged and burned 309,600 acres in the park and national forests.
Another team that looked at the North Fork fire on the park's western edge, which threatened the Old Faithful area, concluded that no amount of resources would have stopped it.
The reports were prepared by National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service fire specialists who interviewed managers and fire bosses.
The Clover and Mist fires started July 9 and July 11. "At this time, the park could have suppressed both fires with initial action forces," the report said.
Dan Sholly, Yellowstone's chief ranger, said historic weather trends showing rains in July and August led park officials to underestimate fire conditions. But he noted that even the country's best fire experts underestimated summer fire conditions.
"We're mortals," he said.
Dick Hodge, forest ranger on the Clearwater National Forest in Potlatch and a member of the review team, said that the first five days, July 9-14, were the only chance park officials had to stop the blazes.
"After that it had grown big enough that we doubted they could have controlled it completely," Hodge said in a phone interview.
The North Fork fire started July 22 when a wood cutter dropped a cigarette in the Targhee National Forest. It quickly spread, and bulldozers were not allowed inside the park during the initial attack.
But with spot fires detected up to a half mile ahead of the fire the next day, Troy Kurth, Yellowstone Area fire commander, judged that bulldozer lines would not hold the fire.