WEST YELLOWSTONE – Smoke rose from thick stands of lodgepole pine just a few miles away as more than 250 people filed into the Union Pacific Dining Hall on Monday night to hear what will be done about the roaring fire in Yellowstone National Park.
Several wildfires have been burning in Yellowstone National Park over the last couple of weeks, and the largest, the Maple Fire, has continued to grow. It has now charred more than 22,400 acres — about 35 square miles — in an area near the Gneiss Creek trail and down toward the Madison River.
It is now four miles from the park boundary and five miles from West Yellowstone. Growth has taken place mostly to the east and northeast, but fire managers said Monday night that they want to make sure it doesn’t get to the town or any of the homes outside of it.
“Basically from here on out the focus is going to be this southwest corner of the fire and the community of West Yellowstone,” said John Cataldo, a fire management officer for Yellowstone.
The Maple fire started two weeks ago and is burning heavy, old growth timber. It has burned south toward the Madison River and is nearing the entrance road, but officials said Monday that the road is still open and that they expect to keep it open.
Fire behavior analyst Michael Dardis said that while fire weather conditions are expected to improve over the next couple of days, they “expect fire to continue and burn actively in mature timber.”
Because of its growth, the Maple fire will no longer be considered part of the Tatanka Complex —a group of fires that have been sharing resources — and will be managed on its own. A Type 2 Incident Management Team will take over the fire this week.
On the eastern and northeastern flanks, officials plan to let the fire run its natural course until it starts to threaten structures near the Madison or Norris areas. Cataldo said that as the fire moves toward Mount Holmes, which is just northwest of Norris Geyser Basin, the fire will hit “unfavorable fuels,” like scree fields and rock.
On the west side, burnouts are planned for when the fire moves farther in that direction. They are waiting for it to move farther west before starting the burnouts because it is burning an “impenetrable lodgepole thicket,” Cataldo said, and it wouldn’t be safe to send crews into it.
“Every inch this thing chews a little closer,” Cataldo said. “It’s putting things in our favor as firefighters.
They are hoping that pushing back against the fire with fire will stop it in its tracks, and keep it from inching farther toward West Yellowstone.
County officials said residents would be notified if the fire begins to threaten homes or structures, and that residents should begin planning for what they might do if it starts threatening their homes. That time hasn’t come yet, but some at the meeting were clearly on edge about the possibility.
Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines spoke at the meeting, saying the rising smoke was an “ominous sight,” and that he wanted to ensure that the tourism economy isn’t affected.
Yellowstone superintendent Dan Wenk said he has “a lot of confidence” in the plans that the fire crews have made.
The other fire near West Yellowstone is the Boundary fire. It has burned 192 acres about a quarter mile from the park’s boundary in the Duck Creek area, and is now 75 percent contained. A 20-person hand crew is still on the fire, but no more growth is expected.