National Wildfire Coordinating Group

The Pepper Hill Fire (Pennsylvania) – October 19, 1938


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?

Incident Summary:

Most of north-central Pennsylvania had been extensively logged by large timber companies from 1890 to 1930.  By 1938, fuels in the area consisted of very young second-growth hardwoods, ericaceous shrubs, and logging slash. Following an unusually hot and dry summer, a killing frost on October 7, caused the foliage to cure.  Precipitation for the previous three months had been substantially below normal. High temperatures persisted in the 80s with relative humidity (RH) of 20-25%.

At 1110 on October 19, 1938, the Hunts Run Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) Camp #S-132 was notified of a possible forest fire. Upon investigation, several fires were located on Pepper Hill Mountain. Two CCC crews were dispatched to the fires. Both crews had just returned from a fire only hours before, and many enrollees requested to stay behind due to fatigue. All enrollees were ordered to go. The two CCC crews began initial attack from both flanks of the fire, anchoring into a nearby road. Both crews began constructing line from the heel of the fire to the top, burning out as needed.  For reasons which are still not clear, crew #2 was ordered to abandon their firing operation on the right flank and proceed to the head of the fire to construct direct downhill line. The crew was ¾ of the way up Pepper Hill Mountain when the fire below made a rapid run that overtook them. A few were able to find safety atop large nearby rocks. The remaining crew was severely burned, and ultimately eight of the young CCC enrollees would lose their lives.

Discussion Points:

Graphic map representing the location of the Pepper Hill Fire in 1938 showing the locations of the crew. Training – Most of the enrollees received little or no formal training.  They were expected to learn what to do on the job.

  • Most of us will work with new firefighters who have little or no experience. It is not reasonable or safe to assume they will learn everything on the fireline. How will your crew prepare new members for success?

Fatigue – Many of the enrollees assigned to the Pepper Hill Fire had just returned to camp from other fires at 0530 that morning.

  • Though we now have work/rest guidelines to help prevent fatigue, a long fire season can still take its toll on even the fittest firefighter. What signs might we see in our crew members that could indicate fatigue?
  • What impact can fatigue have on your crew, and what can you do to lessen the associated risks?

Tactics – The original plan to use the road as an anchor point seems sound, but poor choices were made on the right flank when the crew moved to the head and abandoned their burnout.

  • Without aviation support, would your crew engage this fire? If so, how?
  • Though not a sound decision at Pepper Hill, describe conditions where, while ensuring safety, attacking the head of a fire could be a viable tactic.

Crew Cohesion – The CCC Enrollees had not worked many fires together.  On their way up the hill, they became separated due to differences in physical ability.  There were no indications that their crew leader gave them any direction during this critical time.

  • No firefighter intends to get into a bad situation. We all train to avoid them, but what if? How would you and your crew manage the safety of all firefighters if faced with a similar situation?




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

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