This is a story of thankfulness. This is a story that makes me proud to be an American. The West Yellowstone Economic Development Council celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the 1988 Fires on September 2nd 2013, the day 25 years ago when farmers from southern Idaho trucked their irrigation pipes to “West” and helped set them up to save the town. These farmers sent tens of thousands of dollars of aluminum pipe, which melts in high heat, not knowing if they would get their pipes and connectors back even if they didn’t melt. They were doing what they could to help their neighbors. My family was involved. Here's how it played. It is the kind of cultural event that suggests opportunities as government budgets are ever more stressed.
Twenty-five years ago this month, a town packed with park and forest service fire-fighters and National Guard troops knew they could not count on the government to save their town. The fires were totally out of control and nothing was working well, Fortunately Clyde Seely, who had grown up carrying sprinkler pipe in the Ashton, Idaho area had an idea. He could tap into his church’s emergency preparedness network, and he knew the good people of the Ashton area. He turned to the people he knew in his church and asked for help—and he got it.
We can learn a lot about emergency preparedness from the LDS church and their organization. But it’s about more than their church. It’s about all those farmers in southern Idaho dropping their work in the midst of harvest and rushing to help their neighbors.
If you are not fortunate to have grown up on an irrigated farm or ranch, some of the nomenclature might be difficult to understand. If you have ever moved hand line irrigation pipe, as I did growing up and as a younger adult, you never forget. (For an explanation, see Appendix.)
If you are in disaster pray you are in a community with lots of Mormons. Why? Are they more kind-hearted? Probably not. Are they quicker to take organized action? Probably, because they have a well thought-out procedure for disasters. When hours count, minutes matter.
On July 15, 1988, Yellowstone Park’s policy of “let it burn” was changed to “suppress all fires!” as the greatest fire in National Park history grew into an unmanageable inferno. Late summer rains didn’t materialize, and the hot shots, fire departments, troops, and air tankers from around the US were simply not able to control the rapidly spreading fires. For example, beginning Black Saturday (August 20) winds speeds up to 70 mph consumed ¼ million acres in three days.
Townspeople of West Yellowstone, the west entrance of the Park, grew increasingly anxious as fires approached. On September 1, then Greater Yellowstone Incident Commander, Denny Bungarz, told West’s Town Council Meeting, “Unless the wind patterns change, we could well be defending West Yellowstone from the fires by tomorrow night.” (Fighting Fires with Friends, Famers and Faith, Clyde Seely, 2013, p. 2)
Clyde Seeley, a well-known and respected business owner (he married a classmate of mine), asked, “If we could have a sprinkler system volunteered by the farmers in Idaho set up between the Madison river and town, would you be interested? (Seely, p.2)". Bungarz immediately invited Seely into the hall to talk.
Clyde explained to Bungarz that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has an emergency preparedness program to deal with such disasters. Clyde volunteered to get the sprinkler pipe from southern Idaho, but said he would need authority to use a backhoe to dig a sump hole in the Madison River; the water level was too low for a diesel pump to draw the huge amount of water an irrigation system, now fire suppression system, requires.
By now it’s 9 pm on Sept. 1. The fire was only three-quarters of a mile away as Clyde called his LDS Stake President, Ed Clark, in Ashton, Idaho, some 70 miles south. Clark called the LDS regional representative who called the North-American-Northwest Area Authority in Salt Lake City. They gave the authority to go ahead.
Phone calls went back down the hierarchy to each stake president in the three ag areas south of West Yellowstone. The 20 stake presidents called the nine bishops in their stakes, who then called the farmers and ranchers who might have available irrigation hand lines and other equipment and/or could volunteer other equipment or help.
These farmers, not all LDS by any means, called in their inventories and volunteer help to the bishop. Each bishop, in turn, called Stake President Ed Clark, who called Clyde Seely at 11 pm to tell him the pipe would begin arriving by 9 am, the next morning, September 2.
At the break of dawn (about 5 am) farmers were in their fields picking up 3-5 miles of 10 inch mainline pipe and over 22 sets of 4 inch hand lines, each ¼ mile long. They loaded them on trucks and pipe trailers, along with pipe connecters and other components needed to reassemble two mainlines from the Madison river 1½ miles away from West, through the forest, to near the edge of town where an unknown number of laterals would be lain. My family (George Marotz Farms) had already picked up our pipe and stacked it for winter storage.
My brother Don remembers loading it onto a semi for the 70 mile trip to West. This was a difficult task as each 30 foot length of 8 inch mainline pipe weighs 110-120 lbs. And semi beds are four plus feet off the ground. Moving each piece was a four man job, two lifting the pipe off the ground and two on the semi setting them in place.
Meanwhile, at 7 am Clyde met with a Park ranger to find a suitable spot in the Madison River for the pumps. After a bit of negotiation, they agreed upon a site closer to town than that selected by the ranger. However, the ranger said Clyde couldn’t use a backhoe to dig a larger hole in the river because the stabilizing pads would leave pod marks on the bank of the river! No wonder the term bureaucracy carries a crust of derision.
It's now 8:30am. Pipe trailers and semis loaded with pipe start streaming into town. Much more is on the way.
Not allowed to use a backhoe to dig the irrigation sump, in desperation Clyde asked fire fighters for some dynamite rope. This is the explosive they commonly used to blast fire lines, breaks they create to contain fires. The explosives chief was delighted to have the opportunity to blast a four-foot deep, eight-foot wide hole in a river.
The intake suction hoses of two diesel pumps were placed in the bottom of the sump hole and primed to push water. Volunteers laid down two rows of mainline pipe. Each had adapters for the laterals strategically placed along the 1½-mile route to town.
A 10 inch mainline can carry a lot of water – well over 1000 gallons per minute and under tremendous pressure. The adapters allow for smaller laterals, i.e., 4 inch pipes to branch off perpendicular to the mainline. The objective was to create a vast wet zone between the river and town. Farmers, used to creatively fixing things and making things work, used their portable welders to made adapter fittings to connect the six or so different types of sprinkler systems.
But first the pipe must be laid through the dense forest. The Park Service reluctantly said the trees could be cut down to lay the pipe. Forty-foot lengths of pipe do not bend around trees. Local woodsmen (West used to be a logging town) cut pathways through the trees. Clyde organized the over 100 locals into teams of 10, with a captain over each. When farmers arrived they pitched in and did what was necessary to make the system work.
By 2 pm the first pipeline and the laterals had been laid out between the river and the east side of town. Tensions rose as the fires were now burning just across the river from the pumps.
Would the pump start? Could the inevitable leaks and other problems involved in setting up a mainline with 16 laterals each at least ¼ mile in length be solved in time?
First the mainline had to fill and pressurize, then each lateral had to be opened and pressurized before the next could be opened. There was enough pressure to run every other lateral, so volunteer pipe tenders were assigned to switch them every few hours.
There were plenty of naysayers Clyde recalls, but by 3 pm there were enough lateral lines up and running for the weary volunteers to know they were successful. Over a thousand gallons of water per minute cursed through the mainline, into the laterals, and through the sprinkler heads onto the trees. The familiar swish, swish, swish, of hand line irrigation rain birds was a heavenly sound.
But the battle was not yet won. September 3rd dawned with its own problems—how to get the second mainline across the entrance to the park. Park officials agreed to the idea of lying mainline across the paved roadway and covering it with gravel. HK Contractors were in West installing new sewer and water lines. They volunteered to furnish loads of gravel and smooth it over the mainline with their heavy equipment. According to Clyde, the road was only closed 15 minutes.
By 2 pm the townspeople, farmers, and several busloads of students from Ricks College, now BYU North, in Rexburg, Idaho had laid six long lengths of laterals south of the town. The fire was only about a mile away when the second diesel pump was fired up to push the critical water into the barrier area just south of town. Clyde said he breathed a long and loud sigh of relief when the first swish, swish of the rain birds began to wet the trees and grasses only 50 feet from his house.
The fires were not able to jump the water barriers but the 28-year-old volunteer chief of West’s all volunteer fire department and the other 29 members would not know that for several days. And the young chief had the excruciating task of deciding which buildings they might have to sacrifice. They also had not counted on the effect the rise in humidity from the irrigation would have in slowing the fires.
Meanwhile fires were raging throughout Yellowstone Park. Power lines and substations at Madison and Grant village burned, as well as a few structures throughout the Park. Bob Barbee, the Park superintendent vowed that the most precious park icon, the Old Faithful Inn, would not burn. Wetting it down and stationing people on the roof to extinguish embers was the best he could do--but that would work only if the power stayed on to pump water.
At 11 pm on September 6th, the Old Faithful Fire Commander called Clyde and asked him if he could have a system in place by 8 am the next morning. Clyde told her that he would see what he could do by 8 pm the next evening. Clyde said 18 locals and Idaho farmers loaded our family’s 8 inch mainline pipe and laterals and a diesel pump for the trip to Old Faithful.
More bureaucracy… An armed Park official would not let the semi truck through the entrance gate; it was a commercial truck and commercial trucks aren’t permitted in the Park. The decision was to go ahead; the official would get out of the way. He did (and later apologized).
Using a creek as the water source near the Old Faithful Inn, they laid pipe uphill from the power line and directed a "big gun" to spray the electrical substation and structures. This big gun is a water cannon with a nozzle that shoots a stream of water 200 feet. They were one pipe short of covering the entire power line length.
A day or so later “…big fireballs, about 150 feet high, began to boil over the hillside. The winds of the firestorm carried fire brands across the Old Faithful complex and the fires started burning on the other side.” (Seely, 2013, p.15) A Park official gave the order to evacuate. The three pipe tenders were radioed to leave immediately for the Old Faithful Inn area. Heat from a big, rolling fireball buckled the back window of their pickup as they fled.
Miraculously the Inn was saved, although several cabins and a park truck were lost. Montana Power lost one pole and two cross-arms—the only ones out of reach of the irrigation line. They were easily replaced, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for Montana Power, the Park, and West. The Old Faithful area was able to stay open for the fall and winter tourist season, the major source of economic activity for West.
After the fire had burned by Old Faithful, the pipe was loaded up and hauled back to West. It was next put to use again to stop the active fire that had bypassed West to continue burning toward the Duck Creek housing area. Firefighters were unable to keep the fire at bay, and this time the big diesel pump kept losing its prime. Just 30 minutes before the
fire reached the pipe it finally held and the rain bird nozzles started spraying water. That little bit of water and the now humid air was barely enough to stop the fire…. but it did, saving many structures.
This is an account of victory, valor, and community. There are important lessons in this story. Perhaps we will see this force replicated in future disasters.
Ramona Marotz-Baden and Don Marotz (Ashton, Idaho).
Let me walk you thorough setting up a hand line irrigation system. Picture a half mile wide, mile long field, with a water source (e.g., an irrigation canal) at one end, deep enough at some spot to put in a very large suction hose attached to a large diesel pump. This pump feeds water into a 10-inch diameter mainline, each 50-foot long pipe weighing 220 lbs. when empty and dry. Where each aluminum mainline pipe connects to the next is an upright valve. Next, the mainline is laid and end-capped. Then, 40 foot long 4 inch diameter aluminum pipes, each with a riser (an upright pipe with a rotating rain bird, like your rotating lawn sprinklers) are hooked in the middle. First they tie into the connector at the mainline valve, and then are hooked to each other. They are laid perpendicular to the mainline across the field into the next pipe. (There are 32 pipes in each ¼ mile). There will be a number of these laterals pipelines. They are called hand lines because they are moved down the field by hand, connecting to the mainline until the entire length of the field has been irrigated.