RED LODGE, Mont. — The forces of fire and ice have shaped Yellowstone National Park for thousands of years. It took decades for people to tame it enough for tourists to visit, often from the comfort of their cars.
In just days, heavy rains and rapid snowmelt created a dramatic flood that could forever change the human footprint on the park’s grounds and the communities that have grown around it.
The historic floods that swept through Yellowstone this week, tearing open bridges and pouring into nearby homes, pushed a popular fishing river off course — possibly permanently — and could force roads nearly torn by water currents to be rebuilt in new places.
“The landscape has changed dramatically in the last 36 hours, literally and figuratively,” said Bill Berg, a commissioner in nearby Park County. “It’s ironic that this spectacular landscape was created by violent geological and hydrological events, and it’s just not very helpful if it happens while we’re all stuck here.”
The unprecedented flooding drove more than 10,000 visitors from the country’s oldest national park and damaged hundreds of homes in nearby communities, though surprisingly, no one was injured or killed. A dozen campers still heading out of the backcountry were the only visitors left in the huge park that spans three states.
The park could remain closed for up to a week, and the northern entrances may not reopen this summer, Chief Inspector Cam Sholly said.
“I’ve heard this is a 1000th anniversary, whatever that means these days. They seem to be becoming more common,” he says.
Sholly noted that some weather forecasts include the possibility of additional flooding this weekend.
Days of rain and rapid snowmelt wreaked havoc in southern Montana and northern Wyoming, where it washed away cabins, inundated small towns, and cut power. It hit the park than a summer tourist season that attracts millions of visitors during its 150th anniversary year.
Berg said that businesses in hard-hit Gardiner had just begun to recover from the tourism contraction caused by the coronavirus pandemic and were hoping for a good year.
“It’s a town in Yellowstone, and it lives and dies on tourism, and this is going to be a pretty big hit,” he said. “They’re trying to figure out how to keep things together.”
Some of the worst damage occurred in the northern part of the park and Yellowstone’s gateway communities in southern Montana. National Park Service photos of northern Yellowstone showed a mudslide, washed away bridges and roads undercut by the churning waters of the Gardner and Lamar rivers.
In Red Lodge, a town of 2,100 that’s a popular jumping-off point for a scenic route into the Yellowstone highlands, a creek that ran through the city burst its banks and flooded the main road, causing trout to swim into the streets a day later under sunny spells. Airing.
Residents described a harrowing scene where the water went from a trickle to a torrent in just a few hours.
The water knocked over telephone poles, slammed fences, and cut deep fissures in the ground through a neighborhood of hundreds of homes. Electricity was restored on Tuesday, but there was still no running water in the affected area.
Heidi Hoffman left early Monday to buy a sump pump in Billings, but her basement was full of water when she got back.
“We’ve lost all our belongings in the basement,” Hoffman said as the pump pumped a steady stream of water into her muddy backyard. “Yearbooks, photos, clothes, furniture. Would be a long time to clean up.”
At least 200 houses in Red Lodge and the town of Fromberg were flooded.
The floods came as the Midwest and East Coast sizzled from a heatwave and burned other parts of the west from an early wildfire season amid an ongoing drought that has increased the frequency and intensity of fires. Smoke from a fire in the Flagstaff, Arizona, mountains was seen in Colorado.
While the floods are not directly attributed to climate change, Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said a warming environment makes extreme weather events more likely than they would have been “without the warming that human activity has caused.”
“Will Yellowstone repeat this in five or even 50 years? Maybe not, but somewhere there will be something similar or even more extreme,” he said.
Heavy rain atop melting mountain snow pushed the Yellowstone, Stillwater, and Clarks Fork rivers to record levels Monday, triggering rock and mudslides, according to the National Weather Service. The Yellowstone River at Corwin Springs reached a record set in 1918.
Yellowstone’s northern roads can remain impassable for a considerable time. The flooding also affected the rest of the park, with park officials warning of further flooding and potential problems with the water supply and wastewater systems in developed areas.
The rains hit as hotels in the region overflowed with summer tourists in recent weeks. The surge in tourists doesn’t wane until the fall, and June is typically one of Yellowstone’s busiest months. Last year, more than 4 million visitors were counted through the park.
Rocky Mountain Rotors owner and chief pilot Mark Taylor said his company had flown in about 40 paying customers from Gardiner in the past two days, including two women who were “very pregnant.”
Taylor spoke while transporting a family of four adults from Texas who wanted to do some sightseeing before heading home.
“I imagine they’re going to rent a car and see some other parts of Montana, somewhere drier,” he said.
In a cabin in Gardiner, Parker Manning of Terre Haute, Indiana, got a close-up view of the churning waters of the Yellowstone River just outside his door. Whole trees and even a lone kayaker flowed by.
In the early evening, he videotaped the water eating away across the street, where a large brown house that had been home to parking workers before being evacuated had perched precariously.
With a great creaking sound heard over the river’s roar, the house tilted into the water and was pulled into the current. Sholly said it drifted 5 miles (8 kilometers) before sinking.
The towns of Cooke City and Silvergate, just east of the park, were also isolated by flooding, making drinking water unsafe. People left a hospital and low-lying areas in Livingston.
In south-central Montana, 68 people at a campground were rescued by a raft after flooding on the Stillwater River. Several roads in the area were closed, and residents were evacuated.
In the hamlet of Nye, at least four shacks washed into the Stillwater River, Shelley Blazina said, including one she owned.
“It was my sanctuary,” she said Tuesday. “Yesterday, I was in shock. Today I am just in deep sorrow.”
Whitehurst reported from Salt Lake City. Associated Press writers Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, RJ Rico in Atlanta, and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.