Staff Ride to the Cart Creek Fire
On July 16, 1977, flames overran initial attack firefighters on the Cart Creek Fire causing the death of three firefighters near Flaming Gorge Dam on the Ashley National Forest in Utah.
At about noon on July 16, 1977, lightning started a fire on a grassy flat between Spruce Creek and Cart Creek. Firefighters from the Ashley National Forest were dispatched and the first forces on scene arrived by helicopter to find a 1½ acre fire. The strategy was to start building direct line and continue bringing additional firefighters in via helicopter. During the two hours after the first attack, the fire out-flanked the initial piece of handline and had reached almost 50 acres in size. As the last of the initial attack firefighters arrived, the fire suddenly intensified and changed direction. Three firefighters were unable to escape. By nightfall, over 800 acres were burned, the fire was eventually contained at 1,500 acres.
The Cart Creek Fire has been the only fatality fire on the Ashley National Forest. The knowledge gained from the Cart Creek Fire played an important role in changing the basic fire training program within the Great Basin area. The Cart Creek Fire was also one of six multi-fatality fires in flashy fuels that occurred in three years (1976-1979). This rash of fatality fires spurred the implementation of a national standard for the use of fire shelters and flame-resistant clothing on wildland fires.
The Cart Creek Fire Staff Ride is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- Jim Cook – U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
- Ivan Erskine – U.S. Forest Service - Ashley National Forest
- Steve Holdsambeck – U.S. Forest Service - Intermountain Regional Office
- Bob Kambitsch – Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
- Blaine Moriarty – U.S. Forest Service - Boise National Forest
- Val Norman – Retired U.S. Forest Service
- Kim Osborn – U.S. Forest Service - Intermountain Regional Office
- Lisa Ross – U.S. Forest Service - Ashley National Forest
- Nina Walker – Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
Google Earth fly-around animation for the Cart Creek area.
Documents and Publications:
*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
- Cart Creek Fire Investigation Report (U.S. Forest Service)
- *Vernal Express Newspaper Articles (July 1977)
- Green River Star News Article (July 1977)
- Biography of Gene Campbell
- Biography of David Noel
- *Preliminary Report of Task Force on Study of Fatal/Near-fatal Wildland Fire Accidents (1980)
- Survivor Rick Martin's first-hand comments and corrections
Local Contact Information
Ashley National Forest
355 North Vernal Ave.
Vernal, Utah 84078
Phone (435) 789-1181
This memorial is in honor of Gene Campbell (January 2, 1920 - July 16, 1977), Dwight Emery Hodgkinson (December 10, 1954 - July 16, 1977), and David Kay Noel (June 11, 1941 - July 16, 1977) who lost their lives on the Cart Creek Fire. The memorial was erected by contributions of money and physical effort by friends and families of the three deceased men. It is located at Firefighters Memorial Campground (formerly Bootleg Campground) on Ashley National Forest.
The Cart Creek Fire started at about 1200 on July 16, 1977, from a lightning strike. The fire was burning in low sagebrush and grass with scattered areas of mahogany and bitterbrush, and scattered junipers and ponderosa pine. The point of origin was about 0.4 miles south of the confluence of Cart Creek and Spruce Creek and approximately 2 miles southwest of Flaming Gorge Dam. District FMO Dennis Hatch saw smoke from the fire, drove as close as possible, and walked to the west rim of the Cart Creek Canyon (below the Firefighters Memorial Campground) where he could see the fire. At that time, he estimated the fire to be about ½ an acre. He called the helitack crew based at Dutch John Airport, 3 ½ miles northeast, to initiate suppression action and then went to Cedar Springs Lagoon, about 1 mile north of the fire where he could be picked up by helicopter.
The helicopter placed a two-person initial attack crew near the fire about 1235. They were instructed by Helicopter Foreman Don Black to wait until additional help arrived before beginning initial attack. The fire was about 1½ acres in size at this time. The helicopter then went to Cedar Springs Lagoon, picked up Hatch and another firefighter, made an aerial recon of the fire, and placed two additional firefighters at H-1. Hatch recognized the small squad could not control the fire and promptly radioed for retardant and 20 additional firefighters.
Many of the District's firefighters were attending a rodeo at Manila, about 30 miles away. The District Office contacted the rodeo and a call was made over the loudspeaker system for all District personnel to report to the gate. They were informed of the fire and the need for firefighters. Other District personnel were also alerted and instructed to report to the Cedar Springs Lagoon for transport to the fire site.
The firefighters' memorial is easily located at the Firefighters Memorial Campground off U.S. Hwy 191. It was dedicated on July 8, 1978. It's found at the end of the campground with a short path leading the way to the overlook point.
View from the monument looking toward the Cart Creek Fire site.
When the first firefighters arrived, the fire was about 1 ½ -acres in size and was centered in Stand 2's general location. The fire was spreading slowly uphill against the wind and moderately in all other directions. The head of the fire was possibly along the north side spreading toward the confluence of Cart and Spruce Creeks. Hatch took two firefighters with him and walked partway up the slope to a point near the origin of the fire and began building a fireline along the edge of the fire uphill to the west. One helitack crewmember was left at H-1 to receive personnel and Helitack Foreman Black set up a helibase at Cedar Springs Lagoon.
Tom Plasky and Dave Strantz were placed on the fire at 1300 and joined Hatch's squad. The strategy at this point was to build a line along the southeast flank of the fire uphill and then swing northwest to cut it off before it reached the ridge top. As the flame lengths were ½- to 1½-foot high, the squad worked a direct line with one foot in the black. The helicopter returned to Dutch John Airport for a load of tools and water. In the meantime, the fire had burned downhill far enough that the original landing area (helispot) had to be moved east. This new landing area is referred to as H-2. The exact location of H-1 and H-2 is not known but must have been between Stand 2 and Spruce Creek. The tools and water were dropped at H-2.
Barry Sheakley and John Uphoff arrived over the fire at 1340, and Sheakley requested a recon of the fire so he could assess the situation. Recognizing the desirability of heading off the fire at the ridge top, Sheakley had the pilot place Uphoff and himself on the ridge above the point where Hatch and his squad were building line. Sheakley established voice contact with Hatch and they discussed the situation. Sheakley and Uphoff began to build a separate indirect and unanchored section line along the ridge line to the west. Hatch sent Plasky and Strantz up to assist Sheakley in building this line. Karen Coleman, Yolanda Jenkins, and Dwight Hodgkinson were delivered to H-2 at 1350. These three firefighters left H-2 and began walking uphill to join Hatch's squad.
This is the locked gate at the dirt road turnoff from Highway 191. Travel down the dirt road to the footbridge across Cart Creek to get to Stand 2.
View of the site from near the point of origin.
At 1400, Hodgkinson, Jenkins, and Coleman arrived at the fireline to tie in with Hatch's squad while retardant was being placed on the fire. Hatch felt they were needed in Sheakley's squad; so, he sent them up to tie in with Sheakley, who now had a total of six personnel plus himself. During this time, Dave Noel was organizing crews at Cedar Springs Lagoon. Noel, Ray Purdy, Geary Searfoss, and Darrell Parks were all shuttled in on the first load into H-2, followed by Dave Simpsom, J. Martin, Pat Crevelt, and Carel Jackson.
Martin drew a four-person squad from this group consisting of Crevelt, Searfoss, Simpson, and himself. At Noel's direction, the squad proceeded from H-2 up the slope to tie in with Hatch. Noel had radio contact with Hatch and picked a point where Martin's squad was to build the third section of unanchored line. A second squad was formed but had to wait for one more load of firefighters to be delivered. The next load was delivered to a new Helispot (H-3). At the time, some squad members were unaware of the change from H-2 to H-3, which was moved 65 yards to the southeast. The load consisted of Ray Ruble, Val Norman, Gene Campbell, and Annette Rogers. Purdy was designated as the squad leader of the second squad and was instructed by Noel to begin at the bottom of Martin's line and build line downhill. Purdy's squad headed out, picked up their tools at H-2, and walked across the relatively flat terrain of sagebrush and grass as Noel and Campbell followed about 20 yards behind the last member of the squad.
At 1450, Purdy's squad walked upslope toward the fire and were essentially parallel to the burning edge of the fire. During this time, the helicopter returned to H-3 and dropped off another firefighter, who was to tie in with one of the squads. The helicopter was running low on fuel and lifted off with Helicopter Foreman Black on board to return for fuel.
View from H3 looking toward Noel and Campbell fatality sites.
As the helicopter lifted off at 1450, the fire suddenly intensified along the entire length of the line. Helicopter Foreman Black, recognized the change in fire behavior and notified those with radios.
Hatch had also noted the change in fire behavior as he saw it moving into heavier fuels near the ridge top. He radioed to Sheakley, but his message was not understood, so Sheakley came off the ridge where he could talk directly to Hatch. The two felt they could be successful in tying their two lines together to cut off the head of the fire.
Martin's squad also recognized this change and began backing off from their line. However, after observing that they had fire coming from below, Martin instructed his squad to move across the line to the safety of the black.
Purdy and his squad were just arriving at the lower end of Martin's line and were deciding where to begin building line downhill. When Purdy looked toward the fire area, all he could see was a wall of fire. He yelled for his squad to move into the burned area in front of them; this was passed along to the rest of the squad.
Campbell and Noel were last seen about 20 yards behind Annette Rogers, the last member of Purdy's squad. None of the squad members that looked back after the fire's intensity increased saw Campbell or Noel; all they could see was smoke. Campbell and Noel were cut off from Purdy's escape route and turned south and up a low stony ridge, attempting to outrun the fire. The best estimate on their attempted escape is that after they reached about 50 yards up the stony ridge, they turned east toward H-3 and continued running. After turning toward H-3, Campbell moved about 35 yards and Noel about 20 yards. The location of tools, canteens, and radio established their route.
Dumas, the Assistant Helitack Foreman, and another firefighter heard Black's radio alert and moved from H-3 to H-2 where they were able to see what was happening. Martin observed Campbell and Noel running toward the helispot and saw them fall at about the same time. After falling, Noel did not move. Campbell however, struggled to get up and was seen pouring water over himself moments before the fire overtook him. Dumas and another firefighter realized the fire was moving toward them but managed to outrun the east flank of the fire and were picked up by the helicopter along the edge of Spruce Creek.
Photo from the original investigation report showing the final escape route of Noel and Campbell.
Looking from the area of Stand 4 toward Noel and Campbell’s memorial sites.
Another view from Stand 4 (Noel's memorial) looking toward Hodgkinson's memorial.
Just as with Purdy's squad below, the situation with Sheakley's squad changed dramatically with the increased fire intensity. Sheakley instructed his squad to drop back off their line. They moved a short distance down the ridge to the east with Sheakley calling out instructions. They were separated briefly, but Sheakley was able to gather them back together and line them out in an orderly fashion. They ran along in a single file along the ridge for about 330 feet to a point where they could come down off the rocks. Sheakley was below them and in voice contact with the squad.
As they retreated, the order in line was Uphoff, Coleman, Hodgkinson, and Jenkins. When they came down the rock face, Hodgkinson stepped aside and told Jenkins to go ahead of him. He then came down the rocky slope immediately behind her. Word was passed to drop their tools and run. As they came down the rocky slope, each crew member dropped his/her tool in an orderly fashion and ran toward an opening in the fire created by Hatch's line and into the black. Hodgkinson was the last person in line and did not come through behind the other crew members. Immediately they called to him but got no response.
While overhead, the helicopter pilot and foreman observed Hodgkinson running a few yards behind Jenkins when a Juniper flared in front of Hodgkinson. Hodgkinson stopped and turned around and began to run toward the opening in the bluff where the squad had come down. The helicopter dropped low over him and tried to get his attention to turn him back around and follow his squad but to no avail. Hodgkinson continued struggling up the slope and became disoriented in the smoke. He was last seen falling among the rocks.
Looking downhill toward Hodgkinson’s memorial.
Photo from the original investigation report showing the final escape route of Hodgkinson.
Stand 5 looking toward Stand 4.
Rock bluff above Hodgkinson’s memorial.