LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Twenty years ago Yellowstone National Park was ravaged by fires that burned over 1.2 million acres. This week we continue our series on the park. In a moment we'll visit one of its most famous structures, the Old Faithful Inn. But first, we're going to hear from one man who will never forget the day that became known as Black Saturday. On August 20, 1988, the fires that had been burning in Yellowstone since the beginning of the summer doubled in size. Michael Stuckey is an interpretative ranger at Yellowstone National Park. But in 1988, he was one of the firefighters brought in to fight the Clover Mist Fire on the eastern boundary of the park.
Mr. MICHAEL STUCKEY (Ranger, Yellowstone National Park): The morning report was going to be severe weather, high winds, low humidity, extreme fire behavior expected.
HANSEN: Stuckey and the others on his team hiked two miles into the forest to cut fire lines, strips of deforested land that they hoped would stop the fire's progress. Suddenly, through the din of chainsaws, they heard their fire lookouts yelling for them to head to the safety zone.
Mr. STUCKEY: When the chainsaws stopped, it was supposed to be very quiet, and what we actually heard were several trains coming toward us.
HANSEN: That was the sound of the fire. Stuckey and the others managed to reach their safety zone, a wide natural meadow.
Mr. STUCKEY: We knew that the situation we were in, topographically speaking, was that the fire was going to actually jump over the top of us and then begin to burn behind us. Now, our biggest fear wasn't necessarily to be burned, you know, in the safety zone. But our biggest fear was a flashover, fire all around you and the lack of oxygen. The heat was going up, humidity was continuing to drop, the winds were increasing. Basically, we knew we were going to be in for it.
HANSEN: For about 90 minutes the firefighters tried to fortify their position. But eventually they had to give up and hunker down.
Mr. STUCKEY: I felt like I was actually sweating smoke. The embers in the air were so thick we couldn't breathe, and we were actually getting our chemically treated clothing, fire-retardant clothing, they were actually catching fire.
HANSEN: The firefighters deployed their fire shelters, known as shake and bakes. These aluminum tents were their last resort. At one point the air temperature reached 130 degrees.
Mr. STUCKEY: We sat there for probably about five hours, and that's how long it took for the fire to finally calm down, move past us, and we were given orders to be up, repack, and walk out.
HANSEN: The firefighters were astonished at what they saw.
Mr. STUCKEY: The classic Smokey Bear poster that you see where there's nothing but black sticks in the background, that's what we walked through.
HANSEN: Michael Stuckey and his colleagues made it back to their camp shaken and exhausted. The next day everyone was evacuated by helicopter. The Clover Mist Fire would eventually consume more than 140,000 acres.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.