Cramer Fire - July 22

This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Jul 2020


This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know what the outcome will be. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?

“May the lessons of the Cramer Fire not be lost on an Idaho ridge”

Incident Summary:

2003 – Central Idaho including the Salmon-Challis Nat’l Forest had been in a period of drought for the last four years. Spring and summer rainfall had lagged. 1630 July 20th fire is reported in the area of Cramer Creek. Jumpers are dispatched and size up the Cramer Fire at three acres with high spread potential. High winds keep them from engaging the fire. Firefighters are flown into a helispot (H1) on a ridge between Cramer and Cache Bar drainages, and due to fire behavior, do not engage the fire. The fire burns actively until 0230. By morning, the fire is over 35 acres.

In addition to other air and ground resources, the Indianola helicopter H193 and Helitack crew report to the fire at 1515 on the 21st. By 1952 the fire is 200 acres. At 2000 fire intensity is reported to be low yet due to a thermal belt, the fire burns actively until 0300. Around 0930 the morning of the 22nd, H193 rappels two Helitack into a new helispot (H2) up the ridge from H1. Air attack reports the fire perimeter is now over the ridge and in the Cache Bar drainage. The fire is now on both sides of the ridge that the helispots are on. Fire is active below H1. The Helitack are falling large trees on H2 to clear room for medium helicopters that had been ordered for a crew shuttle. H193 transitions to bucket work on H1 at 1127 and minutes later the firefighters on H1 pull back and retreat down the trail toward the river. 20 minutes later H1 is burned over. Fire activity is reported as “intense”.

By 1430 the fire in the Cache Bar drainage is an active fire front. At 1447 plans were made to remove the Helitack from H2. At 1500 the fire on both sides of the ridge begins to spread rapidly…Both helicopters assigned to the fire are at the helibase 15 minutes away for refueling and maintenance when the Helitack call for an immediate pickup. At 1505 they call again for immediate pickup. At 1509 they call for immediate pickup and report that they are fine just taking a lot of smoke. At 1513 the Helitack report fire and smoke below them and request an immediate pickup. At 1519 Helitack contact helibase regarding status of the helicopter. Arriving at the fire, the helicopter is unable to land due to smoke. Both rappellers leave H2 at 1520. At 1524 the Cache Bar drainage is fully involved in fire. The rappellers make a final call for immediate pickup… Both firefighters die soon after.

History - The Salmon River Breaks area of the Salmon-Challis Nat’l Forest has a long history of entrapping firefighters; 161 to date. Steep slopes predispose areas to rollout and rapid, uphill fire growth commonly lending to extreme fire behavior and difficult suppression.

  • How can information about an area’s fire history help your situational awareness?

Size up – Crews are informed at the July 22 morning briefing that conditions will be getting progressively warmer and drier than previous days. Temperatures surpass 100°F and set record highs. RH’s are 10-15%. Fuels in the Cache Bar drainage are short grass on the south aspects and nearly continuous fields of ceanothus on the north. Live fuel moistures are critically low and the Burn Index (BI) and Energy Release Component (ERC) indicate dangerous conditions.

  • Based on the predicted weather and the fire information above, what are your concerns?
  • How could you and your crew safely engage a fire in a similar situation?

L – The investigation report states that there were no effective lookouts for the rappellers at H2.

  • It is not uncommon to assign small squads to isolated tasks such as cutting helispots. The rappellers on H2 were clearing large trees to make a larger helispot. How would you and your crew maintain situational awareness of the fire and the felling operation at the same time?

C – The rappellers were made aware of the low-intensity fire in the Cache Bar drainage as soon as they were dropped off but the development of an active fire front in the Cache Bar drainage was observed by the lead plane and air attack 50 minutes before the fire reached H2. It was never communicated to them.

  • What will you and your crew do during any fire assignment to get accurate information about current fire behavior?

E and S – There were no effective safety zones for the rappellers at H2 and once H1 below them burned over, the only way out was a helicopter.

  • Helicopters have become a common resource on fires transporting us to and from remote fireline, delivering our food, water, supplies, and medevac. But what would you do if the helicopter couldn’t come? Discuss why depending on helicopters as an escape route is a bad idea?


Incident Complexities - On any incident, we may or may not be aware of problems with incident management effectiveness, adequacy of resources, or other big-picture details.

  • Discuss how you and your crew will maintain safety without knowing these things.


Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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