Staff Ride to the Blackwater Fire
On August 21, 1937, the tragic Blackwater Fire caused the death of 15 firefighters and burned approximately 1,700 acres of Shoshone National Forest land, near Cody, Wyoming.
An electrical storm occurred in the general vicinity of Blackwater Creek on Wednesday, August 18, causing a fire which was not detected until August 20. At the time of detection, the fire appeared to be only two acres in size and was located in the drainage bottom. By the evening of Friday, August 20, the fire had grown to approximately 200 acres, and there were 58 men and seven overhead constructing fireline in an orderly manner and with good speed. Early Saturday morning the man-power was about evenly distributed along the two main flanks of the fire. As more crews arrived and line construction advanced to the east on the hottest section of fireline, a blowup of the fire occurred at approximately 1545 caused by the combination of an undiscovered spot and the passage of a dry cold front. In this conflagration, nine deaths occurred directly. Six additional men were so badly burned that death ensued, and 38 additional men suffered injuries.
Preliminary reports on this lightning fire showed that initial action was vigorous, quite remarkably so, considering the remote location of the fire and that the Shoshone National Forest was considered a low-danger forest. The forest didn't even have lookout stations. At the time, the Blackwater Fire was responsible for the largest loss of life from a single national forest fire since 1910.
The Blackwater Fire was the first fatality fire to have significant investigation and study of the event done immediately after the tragedy. This analysis of the fire eventually led to the development of the smokejumper program, a management action to address the time-delay problems encountered for crews responding to the fire.
The Blackwater Fire Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- Karl Brauneis - U.S. Forest Service - Shoshone National Fores
- Rick Connell - U.S. Forest Service - Shoshone National Forest
- Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
- Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
- Chris Huhnerkoch - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
- Shawna Lagarza - U.S. Forest Service - San Juan National Forest
- Randy Skelton - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
- Chris Schow - U.S. Forest Service - Shoshone National Forest
- Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
The interview of Johnny J. Levine was conducted by Conrad Smith (Professor, University of Wyoming) in November 1995.
Click the image to open a larger image.
Google Earth fly-around animation for the Blackwater area.
Documents and Publications:
*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
- *Clayton's Handwritten Note to Post
- *Blackwater Individual Fire Report Form with Sketch Map
- *Letter from Regional Forester, September 1937
- *Rocky Mountain Region Bulletin October 1937
- *Ranger Post's Statement (Fire Control Notes, September 1937)
- *Factors that Led to the Tragedy (Fire Control Notes, December 1937)
- *Handling of the Blackwater Fire (Fire Control Notes, December 1937)
- *Death in Blackwater Canyon (American Forests, November 1937)
- *National Fire Behavior Course Case Study, 1959
- Smokejumpers and the Blackwater Fire (Static Line, July 1997)
Local Contact Information
Shoshone National Forest
808 Meadow Lane Ave.
Cody, Wyoming 82414
Phone (307) 527-6241
Wapaiti Ranger District
203A Yellowstone Ave.
Cody, Wyoming 82414
Phone (307) 527-6921
This memorial is dedicated to the brave men who perished during the Blackwater Fire of 1937.
The fire started on August 18, 1937, as the result of a passing lightning storm during the late afternoon. The point of origin was traced to a sub-alpine fir located on the west bank of Blackwater Creek approximately four miles from this point. The Blackwater Canyon is a tributary to the North Fork of the Shoshone River. The canyon is mostly oriented north/south, with the high country at the southern end of the range. The elevation ranges from 6,200 to 11,096 feet with canyon walls rising to rims of decomposing granite. The local winds are out of the southwest; any frontal passages would produce typical wind shift patterns.
The fire slept through August 19 and came to life the afternoon of August 20, 1937. Men of the Bureau of Public Roads Crew (BPR), the Wapiti Civilian Conservation Corps Crew.
Note: To relieve economic hardships during the great depression in the 1930s the U.S. Government created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC employed out-of-work young men to help battle the destruction and erosion of our natural resources. These crews were involved in firefighting around the country. Training for firefighting was "very basic" at best. National Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni.
(CCC - Company 1852), and the Lake (Yellowstone NPS) CCC Company arrived at the fire that afternoon and evening. Forest Supervisor Sieker and District Ranger Charlie Fifield, were the men in charge of the fire. They used direct attack tactics, as the strategy was to anchor and flank the fire. The expectation was that the fire would not grow appreciably during the night. However, about midnight the winds increased causing the fire behavior to increase and run up the drainage to the southeast of Trail Ridge. This was a short-lived run, but the fire continued to burn throughout the night. By next morning, the aerial reconnaissance observed the entire drainage was consumed by crown fire behavior with two spot fires between Blind Creek and the drainage to the east. See Map A above.
The firefighter memorial is easily located alongside Highway 14/16/20. It was built by the CCCs and dedicated in 1938. There is a large paved turnout here and a Forest Service parking area below the roadside turnout. The road turn-off to Blackwater Canyon is just east of the memorial site.
The plaque on the firefighter memorial.
This sign along Highway 14/16/20 shows the turnoff to the Blackwater Lodge. This is also the turnoff for FS Road 435 that goes to the upper trailhead in Blackwater Canyon.
FS Road 435 goes south from Highway 14/16/20 and crosses the North Fork of the Shoshone River.
FS Road 435 ends two miles from Highway 14/16/20. This is the upper trailhead, sometimes referred to as Lower Camp. Note the limited parking.
Trailhead footbridge near Lower Camp at the end of FS Road 435.
The shift change began along this ridge during the late morning of August 21st. Smoke was hanging in the drainage, and the fire was backing down the north side of Trail Ridge. The Ten Sleep CCC relieved the Wapiti CCC Crew. The Ten Sleep CCC crew had been expected to arrive about 0800 to the base camp but didn't arrive until 1200. The BPR crew and Yellowstone CCC continued to work. Supervision of the suppression activities was transferred from Forest Supervisor Sieker and District Ranger Fifield to District Rangers Urban J. Post and Alfred G. Clayton. Deputy Forest Supervisor Carl Krueger continued to fly air patrol and report the fire's status.
Mr. Krueger reported several spot fires near the fireline at 1240. The spot fires were suppressed as the line was constructed. Krueger didn't identify any spots in the vicinity where the blowup originated. The strategy and tactics were that Ranger Post would take the lead with assistance from Jr. Forester Paul Tyrrell. Ranger Clayton followed to improve the line and catch any new spot fires. As Post and crew hiked the ridge to start work, he was on the lookout for spots over the line and into the next basin. At that time, no spot fires were seen below [see map B]. They were unaware that the relative humidity dropped to 6% with a temperature of 90° down at camp or that a spot was in the bottom one-third of a mile below them; they didn't anticipate afternoon winds. See Map B above.
From Stand 2, you can see the area that burned during the afternoon and throughout the night of August 20. Look for the regeneration of trees with older snags and skeletal trees. The initial strategy was to anchor and flank the fire. Hose lays were used from the creek bottom up the southern edge (right flank). Stand 2 is on the northern edge (left flank); this is where the hand crews put in direct line. Spots along the edge were dealt with individually. The intent early on August 21 was to continue to flank the fire to the rock rim above. As the day progressed, the crews crossed Trail Ridge and dropped into the next gulch, now known as Clayton Gulch.
Note: During the 2003 fire season, the Shoshone National Forest experienced the worst fire season on record with five large fires and 50 total starts. See Map C above.
From Stand 2, you can also see the 2003 Blackwater Fire, which was started by lightning on August 16, 2003. This fire was initially managed as a Type 3 incident with several hotshot crews and logistics support by the Wapiti Ranger District. For five days the strategy was to keep it west of Blackwater Creek and pinned to the ridge. On August 21, the fire grew significantly. The Type 3 organization pulled back, heading to the 1937 memorial on the mountain. The fire is not staffed again until August 23.
The fire transitioned to a Type 2 Incident Management Team (IMT). On August 25, all resources were pulled from the fire again as a dry air mass moved over (RH of 14%, Haines Index of 5, 60% standing dead timber). Again on August 26, the fire remained unstaffed because of the continued critical fire weather. The fire management objectives given to the Type 2 IMT by the Forest Service were to keep the fire confined in the Blackwater drainage but contain the northern edges. The southern edge could be left to burn back into the drainage where the natural rock rims would contain it. These objectives reduced exposure to firefighters aerial resources (helicopter and airtankers), resulted in a short commitment of the Type 2 organization, and most likely significantly reduced costs in comparison to a full control strategy.
Looking down from the trail into the area where the Blackwater Fire originated from a lightning struck tree.
First distinct switchback in the trail is the suggested location established for Stand 2.
Areas of overlap between the 1937 and 2003 fires can be seen. Notice the older snags evident in the foreground and the recently burned terrain in the background.
In 1937, this area was a stand of mature trees. If you look uphill from where you are standing and visualize the fire creeping downhill, you can see that the fire was out of alignment. During the morning of August 21, the fire had a slight southwest wind. This wind pattern is a typical airflow over Wyoming's Wind River and Absaroka Mountains. At this time, the BPR and Ten Sleep CCC crews were cutting underslung line across the drainage. Firefighters didn't think about using lookouts. Foreman Saban and Junior Assistant Hale from the Wapiti CCC with five or six men from the Ten Sleep CCC enrollees stopped and dammed up the creek to fill backpack pumps. See Map D above.
As Post and his group gained the ridge to the north, they noticed the smoke below Clayton and his group. Clayton also noticed it and prepared to abandon line construction and attack the new smoke. Clayton directed his crew to the gulch to fill their backpack pumps while he headed down hill to scout out the spot in the hole. The last word received from Ranger Clayton was a written note to Ranger Post.
We are on the ridge in back of you, and I am going across to "spot" in the hole. It looks like it can carry on over ridge east and south of you. If you can send any men please do so since there are only 8 of us here.
Around 1530, the wind increased to 30 miles per hour from the northeast, blowing embers over the line. Then the wind subsided for a brief time. When the wind began again, it was associated with the frontal passage and blew strongly out of the northwest. The spot fires below the main fire were in direct alignment with topography, slope, and wind.
The spot fire rapidly ran up the drainage. With no escape routes or safety zones, the fire trapped Clayton and his men at the dam in the drainage. Whether Clayton and his men actually started down to the spot or not was never determined.
Notice the location, imagine the fuels, visualize the resultant fire behavior. Is this a location to get caught? In today's environment what should we be doing differently to prevent getting caught in this situation? How did the four-hour delay impact the line construction? What would the outcome look like if the firefighters had four more hours of line construction time?
As you walk up the ridge from Stand 2, you will come to this point with a vantage of both Clayton Gulch and Post Point. If time is limited, you can use this as an alternate location to conduct discussions for both Stand 3 and Stand 4. This location is identified as Stand 2A on the maps and in the Facilitator's Field Reference.
The distinctive vegetation pattern below Clayton Gulch shows the old burn scar and the location of the spot that would initiate the firestorm.
The gulch as it appeared in 1937.
The gulch as it appeared in 2004.
The Clayton Gulch memorial is on the ridge to the north and just above the gulch where the actual fatality site is located. This is the second memorial built in 1938 by the CCCs.
The plaque on the Clayton Gulch memorial.
Post received Clayton's note but could not help. The Ranger withdrew up the hill to the timberline and safety. Bert Sullivan took the lead while Post and Tyrrell brought up the rear.
The spot fire consumed the fuels above Post's crew cutting off their escape to timberline, thus making Post Point the men's best chance for survival. Five men panicked and ran downhill through the fire. Of these five, only one would survive. Post, Tyrrell, and Sullivan made every attempt possible to keep the men in place. Of the 37 who stayed at Post Point, only 3 would perish.
Even with limited technology in 1937, there was an aerial reconnaissance flight that had identified spots along Trail Ridge and higher up on top of the mountain. The recon flight personnel never noticed a spot developing in the bottom of Clayton Gulch below the crews building line.
Given the fire's origin was a tree struck by lightning, could this passing storm have produced more than one strike in the area? If so, could the strike have remained undetected until winds were in alignment to increase the fire behavior? Previous winds were from the southwest and the spot is sheltered from these winds in the bottom of the drainage below. The passage of a dry cold front switched the winds to the northwest.
When dealing with spots, typically one looks in the predominate direction of the wind as to where they might be found (e.g., downwind). The documentation of the event describes the spots on Trail Ridge as within 100 feet of the main perimeter. One probably wasn't looking one-quarter to one-half mile away for a spot.
Today as we fight fire in lightning-prone areas, are we looking for the sleeper that may be established in a site that could, given optimal conditions, come to life in a hurry and cause a similar situation?
Paul Tyrrell knocked down some of the panicked men and lay down on top of them as a human shield to protect them from the fire behavior. A few days later, Paul's severe burns take his life; he passed away at 1300 on August 26, 1937.
Given the fire progression (see Map D above) and the general wind speeds/direction, the likelihood that the fire cast a spot more than a quarter of a mile perpendicular to the major runs during the evening of August 20 and the following morning would be minimal. This was modeled using fire behavior software BehavePlus. This combined with the fact that the spot was not noticed by aerial reconnaissance might lead one to propose the hypothesis that the "spot" wasn't a true spot but a holdover lightning strike. The significance of the difference between a spot and a holdover lightning strike is that firefighters, even today, typically look for spots either close to the fireline and/or downwind in the direction of the smoke column. Burning embers typically are found in the direction of the smoke column. A holdover lightning strike could be anywhere - in this case, below the existing fireline and most likely out of the path of any smoke column from the previous 24 hours.
The fire rushed uphill from the spot in two waves. The group on the ridge top tried to move around to avoid the flame fronts (see Map D above), but there was little room on the ridge. One of the survivors was quoted as saying, "Anywhere you moved, the flames and heat could get to you."
Fire behavior specialist A.A. Brown completed the fire behavior report for the Blackwater Fire. Mr. Brown identified the following factors as key to the blowup:
- The ragged edge of the fire.
- Underburning of surface fuels that pre-heated the canopy crown.
- The heavy fuel model that the fire burned in - today's fuel model 10.
- Undetected spot fires.
Looking up the ridge at the approach to Post Point.
The view looking back down from Post Point. This is where the majority of firefighters were trapped by the firestorm.
The plaque for the Post Point memorial. This is at the location where the firefighters with Post sought refuge. This is the third memorial built by the CCCs in 1938.