National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Cramer Fire (Idaho) – July 22, 2003


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 the outcome. 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:

Central Idaho, including the Salmon-Challis National Forest (SCNF), had been in a period of drought for four years. In 2003, spring and summer rainfall lagged. At 1630 on July 20, a fire was reported in the area of Cramer Creek. Jumpers were dispatched and sized up the Cramer Fire at three acres with high spread potential. High winds kept them from engaging the fire. Firefighters were flown in to a helispot (H1) on a ridge between Cramer and Cache Bar drainages. Due to fire behavior, they did not engage the fire. The fire burned actively until 0230 July 21. By morning, the fire is over 35 acres.

In addition to other air and ground resources, the Indianola helicopter (H193) and helitack crew reported to the fire at 1515. By 1952, the fire was 200 acres. At 2000, fire intensity was reported to be low due to a thermal belt. The fire burned actively until 0300 on July 22. At approximately 0930, H193 rappeled two rappellers into a new helispot (H2) up the ridge from H1. Air attack reported the fire perimeter was now over the ridge and in the Cache Bar drainage. The fire was on both sides of the ridge that the helispots were on. Fire was active below H1. The rappellers were falling large trees on H2 to clear room for medium helicopters that had been ordered for a crew shuttle. H193 transitioned to bucket work on H1 at 1127, and minutes later the firefighters on H1 pulled back and retreated down the trail toward the river. Twenty minutes later, H1 was burned over. Fire activity was reported as “intense.”

By 1430, the fire in the Cache Bar drainage was an active fire front. At 1447, plans were made to remove the rappellers from H2. At 1500, fire on both sides of the ridge began to spread rapidly. Both helicopters assigned to the fire were at the helibase for refueling and maintenance (15 minutes from H2) when the rappellers called for an immediate pickup. At 1505, they called again for immediate pickup. At 1509, they called for immediate pickup and reported that they were fine, just taking a lot of smoke. At 1513, they reported fire and smoke below them and again requested an immediate pickup. At 1519, they contacted helibase regarding status of helicopter. Arriving at the fire, the helicopter was unable to land due to smoke. Both rappellers leave H2 at 1520. At 1524, the Cache Bar drainage was fully involved in fire. The rappellers made a final call for immediate pickup. Both firefighters died soon after.

History The Salmon River Breaks area of the SCNF 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. clearing large trees to increase the size of the 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 the rappellers.

  • 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 food, water, and supplies, and medevac. But what would you do if the helicopter could not 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.


This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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