Fire protection within Yellowstone falls into two broad categories: Structural fire protection, provided just as with any fire department in any other city, and wildland fire protection, or the management and suppression of fires that occur in the undeveloped, wild areas of the park.
Structural Fire Suppression
The structural fire protection system in Yellowstone is basically identical to the kind of service you’re used to seeing in most cities – fire engines housed at strategic spots throughout the park awaiting calls for service regarding fires, accidents, hazardous materials incidents, or any of a number of other incidents the typical suburban fire department responds to.
YNP maintains fire stations at five locations throughout the park:
Mammoth, Canyon, Lake, Grant Village, and Old Faithful. Additionally, a fire truck is housed at the Tower Junction Maintenance Shed. In addition to the “common” fire trucks, there is a tracked fire engine for use on the snow during the winter months (stored at Lake during the summer, and relocated to Old Faithful during the winter). There are a couple of utility trucks used for fire suppression operations as well, though there are no “ladder” trucks, towers, or other complex pieces of equipment.
The specific distribution of structural fire protection equipment includes:
- Mammoth Fire Cache
- Grant Village Fire/Ranger Station
- Engine 3 (2003 Pierce)
- Old Faithful Emergency Services Building
- Tower Maintenance Shed
- Engine 21 (1983 Pirsch)
- Lake Village Fire Station
- Engine 61 (1993 Pierce)
- Engine 62 (1971 Ford)
- LMC Oversnow Fire Vehicle (1990)
- Canyon Village Emergency Services Building
- Engine 85 (1990 Ford)
A number of hose sheds are located throughout all developed areas of the park. These are used to store hose and other equipment to help with firefighting efforts if needed.
The park’s structural firefighting force consists of two full-time employees (including a fire chief), and a cadre of volunteer firefighters (75+/- park staff/rangers, plus others, including employees of concessionaires). The park also has mutual aid agreements with Hebgen Basin Fire District (includes West Yellowstone’s Fire Department), the Gardiner-Gateway Hose Company, and Cooke City/Silvergate Fire Departments, as well as Grand Teton National Park and the surrounding U.S. Forest Service units. A typical year will see between 250 and 300 calls for response (many are false fire alarms).
The structural firefighting units also respond to motor vehicle accidents and hazardous materials incidents, provide EMS support, and assist in search and rescue (SAR) operations as well. In addition to their incident response duties, they also conduct fire inspections and fire education presentations. The park has two full-time fire inspectors and a mechanic assigned to the structural fire protection branch.
SAR operations are conducted largely by specially trained rangers, including those certified for high-angle and deep-water rescues.
The Park’s 24/7 Communications Center monitors fire alarms from around the park, and receives calls from visitors, employees, and others regarding fires, accidents, and other incidents. Upon receipt of a call, the Center pages on-call firefighters assigned to specific fire stations to respond to the incident. Upon arrival at an incident site, the senior person establishes command (in accordance with basic Incident Command System principles) and becomes responsible for remediating the situation.
Wildland Fire Suppression
Wildland fire operations are coordinated by the park’s Fire Management Officer (FMO), who reports to the Deputy Chief Ranger for Support Operations. The FMO coordinates wildland fire management and operations activities, develops and implements the Park’s Wildland Fire Management Plan, and works the with other entities within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to develop ecosystem-wide fire management protocols to guide fire operations that impact multiple units within the GYE. The FMO is also responsible for ensuring intra-park fire operations conform to standards set forth by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of federal fire agencies responsible for coordinating the response to all major wildland fire incidents across the country.
The Park has several wildland fire trucks based in Mammoth (1570, 1572, and 1573, for example). A central fire cache is also located at park headquarters, with additional caches housed at Bechler, the Northeast Entrance Station, and Lake. A one hundred person fire cache is maintained in addition to supplying each district with ten complete individual firefighter initial attack packs and tools. Mark III portable pumps have been be pre- positioned at Bechler Ranger Station with additional pumps located at Mammoth. A supply of radios and chainsaws is maintained at Mammoth as well. The engine crew foreman position is staffed full time, and the park hires about 20 temporary wildland firefighters each fire season (generally June 15 through September 30).
The park does little prescribed burning to reduce fire load, with the occasional exception around structures in developed areas and backcountry patrol cabins (though they do manage naturally occurring fires). This is largely due to limited personnel.
The FMO is assisted by an Assistant FMO and several other personnel including fire technicians, forestry technicians, a fire ecologist, fire logistics dispatcher, a helitack manager, and several seasonal fire crews.
Wildland Fire Management
As was the case in 1988 prior to the major fires of that year, the Park has a policy of allowing naturally-occurring fires to burn if they’re not threatening humans or developed area. All fires outside of developed areas not ignited by park management for specific purposes are considered wildland fires. Each wildland fire will receive management actions appropriate to conditions of the fire, fuels, weather, and topography to accomplish specific objectives for the individual fire. These management actions, termed the appropriate management response (AMR), may vary from fire to fire and even along the perimeter of an individual fire in a way that ranges from aggressive suppression to managing the fire to accomplish resource benefits.
The park is divided into seven “Fire Management Units” (FMUs) for the purposes of managing wildfires. These FMUs are delineated using natural geographic features and boundaries, the park’s paved road system, major rivers, lakes, drainage corridors, and ridge tops, and include the Northern Range, Northwest, Washburn Range, Mirror Plateau, Central Plateau, Southwest, and Southeast FMUs (see map above).
Yellowstone has three primary fire lookout towers, located on the summits of Mt. Washburn, Mt. Holmes, and Mt. Sheridan. The Mt. Washburn lookout is the only lookout that is permanently staffed during the summer (roughly June 15 – September 30). The other two are staffed only when extreme fire conditions exist, when lightning storms are predicted, or when requested by a neighboring land operator (i.e., Grand Teton National Park might request the Mt. Sheridan lookout be staffed to provide assistance to their monitoring efforts). A fourth lookout, on Pelican Cone, is no longer used as a fire lookout (though it is used for backcountry patrol operations). The Park also uses aircraft and mounted patrols to look for fires. At one time there were lookout towers on Bunsen Peak, Purple Mountain, Divide Mountain, and just inside the park’s west entrance near West Yellowstone. All of these lookouts were removed, though some remnants of them remain and can be seen today.
YNP operates a Fire Dispatch Office (700 Fox, located at the Fire Cache building in Mammoth) during normal business hours, and a 24-hour Communications Center (located in the Telecommunications Support Building in Mammoth) for fire reports during off hours.
The Fire Dispatch Center is responsible for taking fire reports from the Park’s lookouts, visitors, and other Park employees. The appropriate resources are then dispatched to the location, usually the Park contract helicopter and an initial attack crew. After those resources arrive on scene, the dispatch office takes any requests for additional personnel, supplies, aircraft, engines, or equipment. If possible, these are filled with Park resources. If they are not, dispatch will then pass the request on to the Bozeman Interagency Dispatch Center, where it will be filled or moved up to the next level of the dispatch chain (first to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula, and then the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise). When the Park receives a request for it’s resources to go outside of the Park on assignment, the dispatch office is also responsible for finding the requested resource and dispatching it to the appropriate location.
You can find updates and information on significant fires in the park through several venues:
- Yellowstone’s Fire Management Site
- Northern Rockies Coordination Center
- Northern Rockies Common Operating Picture Site
- Teton Fires (Grand Teton area fire info)
During the fire season, the park has a dedicated, contracted helicopter based at a heliport (helispot) near the Mammoth Lower Housing Area, and access to a team of smoke jumpers based at the West Yellowstone Airport. The helicopter is also used for search and rescue missions (as well as resource management support operations).
Fire Effects Monitoring
The Park participates in the Fire Effects Monitoring Program to monitor the effects of natural and prescribed wildland fires in all parks with fire management activities. Yellowstone National Park has had a fire effects monitoring program since 1998. The fire effects monitoring crew collects information on the long-term effects of fire and fire management activities. The crew monitors fuel loads, plant populations, tree regeneration, exotic species and other aspects of the park’s ecosystems. Monitoring ensures that management objectives are met and that adverse effects are not occurring.