Staff Ride to the Rock Creek Fire

 

On July 28, 1939, flames overran crewmen from Paradise Camp F-5, Company 1212, a Civilian Conservation Corp Firefighting Crew, as they retreated from a fire in steep rugged terrain on the Toiyabe National Forest and Winnemucca District-Division of Grazing lands. The fire occurred in Northern Nevada near the small community of Orovada.

The crew divided into two squads near the opening of Rock Creek. One squad made their approach to the fire from the north and the other squad made their approach from the west. As the squads closed in on the fire, a sudden violent shift of the winds caused an extreme downhill run toward the squad hiking in from the west. Within minutes the flames raced down the slopes and drainages engulfing five firefighters as they attempted to escape to safety.

Since 1939, the Rock Creek Fire remains the costliest human disaster in Humboldt County history. The Rock Creek Fire was also the first recorded firefighting fatality occurring in sagebrush fuel type. Much of the knowledge gained about wildland fire has come through the high cost of human lives. Lessons learned from the Rock Creek Fire played a role in the development of the first formal tactical training for fire fighting crews; created an early recognition regarding the importance of physical fitness; and was the first time a fire qualification and experience system was recommended.

This Rock Creek Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Mike Bland - Bureau of Land Management - Winnemucca Field Office
  • 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
  • Susan Lincoln - Bureau of Land Management - Winnemucca Field Office
  • Ted Mason - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Stacy Odom - Bureau of Land Management - Winnemucca Field Office
  • Connie Tyler - Bureau of Land Management - Winnemucca Field Office
  • Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
  • Mike Whalen - Bureau of Land Management - Winnemucca Field Office

Special thanks to the following individuals for their interviews and insights into the actions on the Rock Creek Fire:

  • Ron Cerri - Cooperating landowner
  • Raymond Gabica - Initial attack firefighter on the Rock Creek Fire
  • Kirk Studebaker - Initial attack firefighter on the Rock Creek Fire
  • Arlow Wolford - Daughter of Wilbur Timmons

Special thanks to the following individuals for their support on this project:

  • Donna Broome - National Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni Association
  • Dee Holzel - KWNA Radio of Winnemucca, Nevada
  • Tami Spero - Humbolt County Clerk

Click the image to open a larger image.

Travel Map

Travel Map.

Orthophoto with final fire perimeter and NAD 83 GPS locations for stands shown

Orthophoto with final fire perimeter and NAD 83 GPS locations for stands shown.

 
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Topo Map with fire progression and locations for stands shown.

Investigation Report Map with firefighter travel routes shown

Investigation Report Map with firefighter travel routes shown.

 

The memorial site was established by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the U.S. Forest Service in honor of the crewmembers of Company 1212 that were entrapped on the 1939 Rock Creek Fire. This is a good location to begin the staff ride, as it is easy to find, has good parking capacity, and provides an excellent perspective of the site from the monument.

The Rock Creek Fire started at 1115 on July 28th, 1939 from lightning. The point of origin is located approximately five miles southeast of Orovada, Nevada and four miles due east of the Highway 95 monument. Between 1530 to 1600 the fire burned explosively downhill in a westerly direction, under the influence of a thunderstorm directly over the fire that produced 40 to 60 mile per hour downdraft winds. At the time the wind event occurred, six local residents were suppressing the fire and 23 CCC firefighters were hiking to the fire from Rock Creek. The CCC crew was divided into two squads. One squad hiked in from the north toward the left flank of the fire and the other traversed from the west to the bottom of the fire.

See the travel map, above.

See the Orthophoto map with the final fire perimeter and NAD 83 GPS locations for stands shown, above.

Click to link to National Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni.

Photo of Kirk Studebaker, the store owner

Interview excerpts from Kirk Studebaker, the store owner who reported the fire and helped with the initial attack of the fire:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

The Monument is located in the center of the Rest Area ½ mile South of Orovada, Nevada on Highway 95.

The Monument is located in the center of the Rest Area ½ mile South of Orovada, Nevada on Highway 95.

 
Looking to the east from the Rest Area on Highway 95 at significant area landmarks. Sawtooth Mountain is the predominate mountain on the left.

Looking to the east from the Rest Area on Highway 95 at significant area landmarks. Sawtooth Mountain is the predominant mountain on the left.

Looking to the east from the Rest Area on Highway 95 at the other Stand locations.

Looking to the east from the Rest Area on Highway 95 at the other Stand locations.

 

Approximately 1400 hours the CCC crew arrived at Rock Creek. They drove to the end of the two-track road leading into the creek. At this point, the Crew Foreman, Wilbur Timmons, divided the 23 person crew into two squads. He would take his squad and approach the fire along the ridge to the north of the fire. He placed Earnest Tippin in charge of the second squad. Tippin's group was directed to approach from the west to the bottom of the fire. Foreman Timmons believed the bottom of the fire would be safer for the less experienced squad boss Tippin. Timmons had briefed Tippin in the truck as they drove into the fire. Timmons gave a direct order to "keep the men in safety". The squads rapidly assembled and departed the truck heading to the fire. Tippin's route took him a short distance up Rock Canyon then south, crossing over a saddle, and following the McConnell Trail. The McConnell Trail followed a dry drainage west toward the fire. Timmons continued up Rock Creek ½ mile then started hiking a ridgeline heading to the north of the fire. Almost 300 yards due east of Stand 2, on the south facing slope above Rock Creek is the Vitale fatality site. This is a good time to point this out, however, Stand 4 will provide the greatest vantage point for discussion regarding Vitale's escape route.

See the orthophoto map with the final fire perimeter and NAD 83 GPS locations for stands shown, above.

The two squads hiked together up Rock Creek to the point were Tippin's crew turned to the south and crossed over the saddle you can see on the right side of the photo.

The two squads hiked together up Rock Creek to the point were Tippin's crew turned to the south and crossed over the saddle you can see on the right side of the photo.

Looking back down the two-track road from the crew parking area toward the Gabica Ranch.

Looking back down the two-track road from the crew parking area toward the Gabica Ranch.

 
Photo of Raymond Gabica, ranch hand

Interview excerpts from Raymond Gabica, ranch hand that helped initial attack the fire:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

Tippin's squad crossed the saddle from Rock Creek heading east up a dry drainage. The McConnell Trail parallels this drainage leading up to the fire. They stopped and took short breaks several times as they hiked up toward the fire. They left one person at Rock Creek as a water boy. As they progressed up the trail, four squad members fell behind. Sometime between 1515 and 1530, Tippin and five of his squad reached the ridge at the head of the dry drainage. The fire was backing down the ridge to the north of this location. It is here that Tippin gave his tactical briefing, described by survivors as the "Pep Talk". He delivered his briefing before the four other squad members reached his location. Within seconds of finishing or during his briefing the wind abruptly shifted from the west to the east and increased to more than 40 miles per hour. They were now directly in the path of the oncoming head fire. He gave the order to begin walking back to the truck. The four squad members who were still hiking up saw Tippin and party hiking back toward them. They immediately turned around and began running back toward the truck. Tippin gives an order not to run and "save your breath for the fatal moment." Tippin then hears the roar of the fire, turns and looks again; he then gives the order to run. As they dropped down into the drainage the fire outflanks them on the ridgetops and heavy smoke hinders their orientation.

See the topo map with fire progression and stand locations, above.

Above Stand 3, looking west down the dry drainage that Tippin's squad hiked up.

Above Stand 3, looking west down the dry drainage that Tippin's squad hiked up.

Typical of the fuel conditions that were present in the area prior to 1939.

Typical of the fuel conditions that were present in the area before 1939.

 
Photo of Kirk Studebaker, store owner

Interview excerpts from Kirk Studebaker, the store owner who reported the fire and helped with the initial attack of the fire:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

Shortly after 1530 Tippins squad was in an urgent retreat back to Rock Creek where the truck was parked. All of the four squad members who did not make it to the Pep Talk on the ridge were running over the ridge into Rock Creek and down to the truck. These men did not follow the McConnell Trail through the saddle. They crossed the ridgetop well above the saddle. Tippin and the remaining squad members were steadily being driven deeper into the drainage. The fire was closing in from behind and on their flanks. In haste, Kennedy broke his ankle jumping into the drainage bottom only 50 yards downhill from Stand 3 and called for help as the fire rapidly approached. Tippin and James immediately turned back to help Kennedy "arm in arm" continue his way downhill. Meanwhile, Barker and Powers collided with each other. Powers jumped up and continued running to the saddle. At about this point, Tippin and James realized that they cannot outrun the fire while helping Kennedy. They left Kennedy behind and ran ahead to help Barker, who was now limping after his collision with Powers. The fire overran Kennedy and then caught Barker, Tippin, and James about ¼ mile down the drainage.

Squad member Vitale ran north into Rock Creek toward the truck. His vision was very poor and a later report indicated his eyeglasses were broken and he did not have them on this fire. This may explain why he did not run directly to the truck. Instead, his body was found approximately 300 yards north of the saddle on the south facing slope above Rock Creek. The remaining six squad members ran down the Rock Creek road until they were picked up and taken to Gabica Ranch. They assisted in the evacuation of the Ranch. From the time of the initial wind shift to the time the survivors reached the truck was estimated to be less than 45 minutes.

See the topo map with fire progression and stand locations, above.

See the Investigation Report Map with firefighter retreat routes, above.

Looking at Stand 4, which is in the area where the two un-named drainages converge and is south of Rock Creek.

Looking at Stand 4, which is in the area where the two un-named drainages converge and are south of Rock Creek.

Looking north through Rock Creek Saddle at the Vitale fatality site.

Looking north through Rock Creek Saddle at the Vitale fatality site.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2020-06-24