Fire, Then Ice

For Yellowstone National Park, the season of recovery has come. Last summer’s fires have turned to ice, and the smoke that darkened the sun has dispersed. With a sense of vindication as well as relief, Dan Sholly, the park’s chief of rangers, pauses to survey the wilderness he is sworn to defend—and which, in the heat of the fire storm that began last June, some angry critics claimed he was allowing to die. Five feet of powdery snow blanket Yellowstone’s scorched backcountry now, and frost crystals sparkle on the blackened bark of ancient lodgepole pines. Three mule deer flounder through belly-high drifts, long plumes of steam billowing from their nostrils. Out beyond the trees, a small herd of bison makes its way across windswept Swan Lake Flat. Sholly points to the spot where he and a team of fire fighters took a stand against one of the blazes. “See here,” he says, indicating a nearby ridge spiked with blackened tree trunks. “This is where the fire came over the top of the mountain. It hit us real fast.”

Last summer, while 10,000 fire fighters battled to control the blazes that roared through 706,000 acres of parkland, Sholly dreamed of the healing snows that have now come. Not that he doubted the National Park Service policy of allowing many natural fires to burn themselves out. Like most conservationists, Sholly views such fires as nature’s way of clearing the land for a new cycle of growth. But the inferno that cast a pall over the area’s tourist industry and seemed to be destroying the park prompted many, including politicians in Washington, to question the Park Service’s wisdom. Nor did the debate die with the flames. With the snow has come a paper blizzard of official inquiries, reports and memos. Says Sholly: “I have meetings until June.”

Yet undeniably the park is alive, and nobody can speak for it better than Sholly. A former Marine who lost an eye in Vietnam while leading a platoon in a different kind of firefight, he has earned the devotion of the rangers who serve under him. “He dives right in and he does it right,” says ranger Mike Pflaum. “He’s always in control. In a tight spot he’d take quick action, and you’d follow him without question.”

There were times last summer when his people had no choice. During one backcountry helicopter patrol, Sholly joined a ranger clearing a firebreak. Suddenly nearby flames picked up speed. With no escape, the two jumped into Sholly’s “shake-and-bake” tent, made of fire-resistant aluminum-coated cloth, huddling inside while the flames hurtled past. When the rangers emerged unhurt 45 minutes later, they were surrounded by charred forestland. “You only want to do that once,” says Sholly, 43, who has also been known to ski all night in whiteout blizzard conditions to rescue foolhardy tourists in winter. Last year, when a hiker took a walk in 10-foot snow and dropped into a thermal pool near Shoshone Geyser Basin, Sholly directed the search. Unfortunately, nature heats the pool to 180°F. “He boiled to death,” says Sholly.

The chief ranger can be a tough man to work for. Rangers using Yellowstone’s backcountry employee cabins are required to follow strict housekeeping rules. Inspecting an outpost at Crystal Springs, Sholly discovers that the last occupant has left the stove stuffed with soggy newspaper. Worse, he has failed to leave the required four matches—no more, no less—on top of the stove. Sholly’s face reddens with anger. “If you’re standing here in the dark, cold and frozen, you just feel the match and start the fire,” he says. “The seconds are precious when you’re in trouble.”

No one would know better than Sholly. When not at home with his wife, Tana, 37, and their children, Brooke, 8, and Trevor, 6, he often travels deep into the woods for the solitude. The son of a onetime park ranger, he began working summers at Yellowstone when he was in his teens. After a three-year tour in Vietnam, he held various posts at Yosemite and Crater Lake and in the National Park Service in Washington, D.C. Then in 1985 he took a cut in rank and pay to assume command of his beloved Yellowstone. “This is my church and my religion out here,” he says. “I can stay here three or four days with a toasty fire, hear the birds singing, drink coffee and feel in touch with God.”

Since the fire, Sholly has spent a lot of time in small towns around the park, explaining what happened last summer. “The American public is not dumb,” he says. “If they are given the facts, they usually understand. This forest is not dead or dying. It’s alive and growing, and we have the fire to thank for that. Think about this. At the 10,000-foot level the streams are very cold, trees build up and increase the shadows, making the water colder. A fire thins those trees, allowing the water to warm, which increases the fish population. That’s just one example. The heat from the fire caused the pine cones to release seeds. Man can’t do that.”

Surveys, he points out, indicate that barely one-tenth of one percent of the soil in the 2.2 million-acre park was severely damaged. As for the wildlife, just 243 elk died, out of a herd of 32,000. Rangers counted the carcasses of only five bison, four deer and two moose. “Animals understand fire,” says Sholly. “People don’t. I sit here and I think of the way we abuse the land. Soon I’m afraid there won’t be anything left. That’s why the fire was such a good lesson to us. There are some things man can’t control. We should listen to the forces of nature.”

—Montgomery Brower, and Bill Shaw in Yellowstone

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