USA — Twenty years ago, Bob Ekey couldn’t believe what he was seeing on television.
Just outside his room at the Three Bears Lodge in West Yellowstone, a CNN reporter was broadcasting live that ash from fires burning in Yellowstone National Park was falling as he spoke.
It was snow.
I wanted to go out and tackle the guy, said Ekey, a Billings Gazette reporter covering the 1988 fires. He sensationalized an already sensational story.
Most of the fires started outside the park in May and June. Media interest in the fires was local.
This was a regional story with small national interest until it kicked into August, said Al Nash, the Yellowstone National Park spokesman, who in 1988 was news director at a Billings television station. The networks and big newspapers weren’t here until August.
By that time, some of the park’s treasured places, such as Old Faithful Inn, were threatened, and national news crews poured in.
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis even made an appearance in West Yellowstone, declaring that the event was the only game in town.
But according to accounts, some members of the national media were clueless about the restorative role of fire.
Ekey, who works for an environmental group in Bozeman, said some of the national reporters would sit in a motel room in West Yellowstone and seek to interview him when he returned from the park at night.
Bob Barbee, the superintendent of the park that summer, spent much of his time briefing the media. They weren’t used to dealing with dramatic events like that, especially fire.
The regional media, I thought, did an excellent job by and large, Barbee said, but he recalled that the national media added to an already explosive situation.
One newspaper quoted fire ecologist Don Despain as saying burn, baby, burn. But Barbee said the remark was taken out of context. Despain was referring to a plot of land he had marked out as part of a study on fire, not the entire park.
Barbee said the media also coined the term let it burn as the National Park Service’s policy toward natural fires in wilderness areas. He said the term made the intentional policy sound like a devil-may-care attitude about fire.
Ekey said that as wildfires have become more common across the United States, the media has done a better job.
The media has come a long way, he said. Everyone still uses the war analogies, but there’s a better understanding of the natural role of fire.