Saturday, August 11, 2012

Remembering the Blackwater Fire

The view looking back down from Post Point. This is where the majority of firefighters were trapped by the firestorm.
The Blackwater fire was 75 years ago. The knowledge and experience of how to fight wildland fires was very elementary at this time. Not only were communications done through hand written notes with runners, but logistical supplies were delivered via horse pack strings. Aerial delivered retardant, helicopter bucket drops, or sling loads were not invented yet. Finally, there was no LCES, 10 and 18’s or PPE. Most of the men wore jeans, a full brim felt hat, and cowboy boots.

August 20, 1937

  • The Blackwater fire started on August 18, 1937, as the result of lightning; it was detected from the Pahaska Tepee at East Yellowstone Entrance at 1535 hours on Friday, August 20, and passed on to District Ranger Charles Fifield at the Wapiti Ranger Station. Assistant Forest Supervisor Carl G. Krueger, who was conducting an aerial recon for a reported smoke in the Sunlight Basin, with Pilot Bill Monday spotted the fire at about the same time Pahaska made the report. At this time, the smoke was seen by Krueger, the column was moving straight up with little wind, and the fire appeared to have burned over only a couple of acres.
  • The temperature on August 20th was 85 degrees with a relative humidity of 16 percent. Under these conditions the smoke was rising vertically. The day has often been described as extremely “hot and dry, with the sun boiling down and no discernible winds.”
  • Ranger Fifield responded at 1600 with men from his CCC camp and arrived on scene at 1710 hours. The travel route consisted of 13 miles of highway, an old logging road, and unused trail; this made Ranger Fifield’s response time approximately 1-hour and 18 minutes, which is exceptionally good time. The point of origin was traced to a Sub-alpine Fir located on the west bank of Blackwater Creek approximately 3.8 miles from today’s highway memorial.
  • Foreman Bryan Sullivan and his crew of seven CCC’s were the first to arrive on the fire and begin work. By 2000, 58 CCC’s were on the line, with seven men supervising and forming the overhead. The fire was estimated to be about 200 acres at this time.
  • The fire was headed towards Coxcomb Peak in an almost pure stand of Douglas fir. The objectives at this time:
  1. Keep the fire from getting into the heavily timbered basin (one of the main forks of Blackwater Creek;
  2. Strike hard and swiftly.
  • Forest Supervisor Sieker arrived at the fire, after an 86-mile trip from Sunlight, at about 2000. Sieker and Fifield estimated the fire would not spread much during the night and enough line could be constructed to hold the fire to its present boundaries.
  • Two things were needed: men and equipment. Supervisor Sieker left to order additional men so that 150 men would be on the fire by daybreak.
  • On the night of August 20th, 65 men were divided and construction of line advanced around the flank of the fire from Blackwater Creek each way. During the night, the fire pump on the west sector held a dangerous section of line and prevented spread up Blackwater Creek.
August 21, 1937
  • Around midnight on the morning of August 21st, an unexpected wind, for short duration, caused Ranger Fifield to concentrate forces on the North side of the fire along Trail Ridge. By daylight, despite unfavorable weather, the line was still holding.
  • 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 Tensleep CCC relieved the Wapiti CCC Crew at around 1200. The Yellowstone CCC had arrived at 0230 that morning and continued to work. The BPR Crew had arrived at 1030 that morning and continued to work.
  • During the morning of August 21st the fire had a slight southwest wind which is a typical airflow over Wyoming’s Wind River and Absaroka Mountains. 
  • At noon, Assistant Forest Supervisor Krueger made an airplane reconnaissance of the fire, returned to the Cody office at 1330 and proceeded to the fire with the intention of relieving Ranger Fifield. Ranger Alfred G. Clayton, of the South Fork District of the Shoshone National Forest, had arrived at the fire camp at about noon. The forest supervisor decided to turn the fire over to Clayton and Krueger to permit himself and Fifield to secure some rest. 
  • At the time Krueger made his air reconnaissance, the fire was quite hot on the steep, Douglas-fir covered slope above the line being constructed northeastward from the Trail Ridge. The fire had spotted over into the headwaters of Blind Creek on the Elk Fork drainage. The fire was not making much progress at the time and the wind was quiet. 
  • The strategy was to anchor and flank the fire. Hose lays were used from the creek bottom up the southern edge (right flank). Trail Ridge was considered the northern edge (left flank) and was where crews were constructing handline while picking up spot fires as they went.
  • The objective at this time was to extend the control line towards the timberline while holding the existing line. Ranger Clayton and Ranger Urban J. Post from the Big Horn National Forest were selected for the advance line work because of their long firefighting experience. Ranger Post was assisted by Junior Forester Paul E. Tyrrell and Foreman James T. Saban (a former Forest Ranger with much firefighting experience) who was in charge of the Tensleep CCC’s.
  • Ranger Post and Tyrell took the lead and deployed his men with orders to push the fireline toward the rim rock above, while Saban brought up the rear with a group of enrollees carrying back pack hand pumps. Ranger Clayton followed to improve the line and catch any new spot fires. Ranger Post found nothing to cause him concern and expressed the fire would be well in hand in 3 or 4 hours. Post’s men got to work on the line at about 1515 hours. As the day progressed, the crews crossed Trail Ridge and dropped into the next gulch (now known as Clayton Gulch).
  • The relative humidity was 6% with a temperature of 90° down at camp.
  • The BPR and Tensleep CCC crews were cutting under slung line across the drainage. Ranger Clayton who had come up from behind the crew looking over the line was discussing the situation with Foreman Saban (Tensleep CCC) and Junior Assistant Hale (Wapiti CCC). Saban and Hale, with 5-6 men of the Tensleep enrollees, stopped and damned up the creek to fill backpack pumps.
  • As Ranger Post and his men gained the ridge to the north they noticed the smoke below Ranger Clayton and his group. Clayton also noticed the smoke and prepared to abandon line construction to attack the new smoke. Ranger Clayton and Ranger Post both noticed the spot fire, but had no way of communicating to one another.
  • The last word received from Ranger Alfred G. Clayton was a written note to Ranger Post: “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.” Clayton 
  • Sometime around 1530 the wind increased from the northeast blowing embers over the line and briefly subsided. When the wind began again it was associated with a frontal passage and blew strongly out of the northwest. The spot fire rapidly ran up drainage trapping Ranger 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.
  • Shortly after Ranger Post received the note from Clayton, the wind began whipping back and forth fiercely driving the surface fires into the crowns. From Ranger Post’s position, he quickly realized the seriousness of the situation, pulling all his men; he proceeded to what he considered a safe place, since he was unable to return along the fireline to Trail Ridge.
  • BPR Foreman Bert Sullivan took the lead while Post and Tyrrell brought up the rear. The 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 survived. Post, Tyrrell, and Sullivan made every attempt to keep the men in place. Of the 37 who stayed at Post Point, only 3 would perish.
  • Paul Tyrrell knocked down some of the panicked men only to lie on top of them as a human shield to protect them from the “fiery blast”. A few days later, Paul’s severe burns took his life; he passed away at 1300 on August 26, 1937.
  • 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, but there was little room on the ridge.
  • The final fire size was 1,700 acres and it took more than 400 CCC’s and miscellaneous forest officers for a total of 520 men to bring the fire under control.
  • David P. Godwin, Division of Fire Control, Washington – concluded:
    • The leadership on the fire was intelligent and protective of the men. It is evident that this fire was handled in a manner reflecting sound experience and knowledge…failure of the Tensleep crew to arrive earlier on Saturday probably contributed to the disaster.
    • David Godwin established the Parachute Project in 1939 at Winthrop, WA a mere two years following the Blackwater tragedy.
  • Fire behavior specialist A.A. Brown completed the fire behavior report for the Blackwater fire. Mr. Brown identifies the following factors as key to the “Blow Up”:
    • The ragged edge of the fire.
    • Under burning of surface fuels that pre-heated the canopy crown.
    • The heavy fuel model that the fire burned in – today’s fuel model 10.
    • Spot Fires
  • We can also add the following factors:
    • Frontal Passage - The most obvious, but overlooked due to the limited understanding of fire weather at the time was the passage of a dry cold front. The winds shifted from southwest to northwest and increased to 30 mph. Local firefighters expect and plan for winds due to the frequency/consistency of winds.
    • Drought - In addition, the long-term drought of the 1930 “dust bowl” years would have intensified by 1937 contributing to the explosive conditions.
    • Terrain - Finally, the orientation of the fire within the North Fork of the Shoshone River drainage could help funnel and increase wind speed over the fire area with the passage of the northwest cold front.
Fire Organization and Staffing

August 20, 1937:
  • Management Oversight - Shoshone N.F. Forest Supervisor John Sieker
  • Initial Attack Fire Boss -Wapiti District Ranger Charles E. Fifield
  • Resources:
    • Wapiti Camp CCC (F24) – 58 men (Crew Boss Glenn Hill with Foreman Bryan Sullivan)
    • Lake NPS CCC (YNP) – 54 men (Crew Boss Rogers with Forman Wolcott)
August 21, 1937:
  • Large Fire Fire Boss - Shoshone N.F. Assistant Forest Supervisor Carl G. Krueger
  • Sector Boss - South Fork District Ranger Alfred G. Clayton
  • Resources:
    • Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) - 9 Men (Bert Sullivian – Crewboss)
    • Tensleep CCC - 51 men (Crew Boss Urban J. Post with Foremen James Saban and Paul Tyrrell)
    • Deaver CCC (BR7) - 50 men (Crew Boss Sanzenbacher)
    • Lake NPS CCC (YNP) - 54 men split between flanks (Crew Boss Rogers with Forman Wolcott
    • Locals - 15 men at unknown locations
Thanks to the US Forest Service for this contribution.
Point of contact: Kristie Salzmann – work: 307.578.5190, cell: 307.250.0418, or
See the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program Staff Ride Library for more information on the Blackwater fire.

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