YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — There are quite a few blackened lodgepole pines here, near the Bacon Rind trailhead in the park’s northwestern corner. Some treetops look almost orange, a sign the trees were scorched but not killed.

Underneath, there’s life. A sea of green interspersed with colorful wildflowers, all aided by a good winter and a wet June. There are signs elk are around, too, a few federal officials said.

It’s all the aftermath of the Bacon Rind fire, a 5,200-acre blaze that lingered a while last year here where the park abuts the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. It began with a lightning strike in the second half of July. For nearly three months, fire officials watched closely as the fire consumed lodgepole, spruce fir, some white bark pine. Orange flames danced on the ridge top and in the gullies as it grew toward Bacon Rind Creek and managed to move north of Snowslide Creek. Smoke rose into the sky and occasionally laid down over U.S. Highway 191.

Sometime in October, snow put the fire out. No serious suppression help was needed from the humans who staffed the fire, said Jeff Shanafelt, a Forest Service fire management officer.

“It ended up being a great opportunity to manage the fire, get some great ecological benefits in there,” Shanafelt said. “And basically help us out for the next 20 to 30 years because we now have a great fire scar on this piece of land.”

Shanafelt and several other federal fire officials revisited the Bacon Rind burn area this week to show reporters around the fire that was allowed to burn. The area is now lush and green, well removed from the dog days of July and August last year when crews were on the side of the highway each day, watching.

That doesn’t mean they did nothing — they held daily meetings and made contingency plans for what they’d do if the fire hit certain spots. The whole operation cost about $4.4 million, said Forest Service spokeswoman Mariah Leuschen-Lonergan.

Their work centered on keeping the fire from threatening public safety while allowing it to eliminate old dry timber and make room for new stuff.

“We were able to manage this and really let nature take its course,” Shanafelt said.

The blaze was the first time fire had been allowed to return to this piece of forest in some time, perhaps as long as two centuries. It happened at the same time as the Monument and Wigwam fires, which burned one valley to the west, in the Gravelly Range south of Ennis.

The management of those two fires was much different from the Bacon Rind. At the Monument and Wigwam fires, crews dug fire breaks and aircraft regularly dropped retardant and water on the blazes. On the Bacon Rind, crews stayed ready to fight if needed but mostly watched it do its thing.

The difference was about location. There were people who lived closer to the two fires south of Ennis, giving managers a concern for people’s safety. The Bacon Rind fire was on the edge of Yellowstone and in designated wilderness, a place where land managers tolerate fire’s role in the ecosystem.

It also came during a year with a fat snowpack and a wet spring, making fire fuels burn more slowly. Burn severity varied throughout the blaze, but only about 12% of it was considered “high severity,” according to Todd Erdody, a Forest Service fire ecologist. There was at least one day when water was dropped on the fire to keep it from crossing the road, but hardcore suppression efforts weren’t necessary.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t any scary moments, though. Not far from the northern edge of the fire is the Black Butte Ranch, owned by Duncan Patten and his family. Patten’s parents bought the ranch in the 1950s, and he’s been hanging around ever since.

He said his daughter, who lives in a cabin there, heard the flames crackling one night, while she was sitting on her porch. It had jumped to a ridge just above the ranch.

“That little point is what scared the hell out of us,” Patten said.

Crews built a fire break between the cabins there and the fire. Fortunately for them, the breaks were never really challenged as the fire stayed high above them.

“It sort of hung out on top of the hill and didn’t come down the north-facing slope,” Patten said. “Then the weather came and that was the end of it. So we were lucky.”

Michael Wright can be reached at or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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