Incident Name: Blackwater Fire
Date: August 21, 1937
Personnel: 15 lives lost, 38 injured
Agency/Organization: US Forest Service
Alfred G Clayton, Ranger South Fork District, Shoshone NF, age 45
James T. Saban, CCC Technical Foreman - Tensleep Camp F-35 (former Forest Ranger on Medicine Bow and Chippewa NFs), age 36
Rex A. Hale, Jr Assistant to the Technician, Shoshone NF; from the Wapiti CCC camp, age 21
Paul E. Tyrrell, Jr Forester, Bighorn NF (Foreman), died later at hospital 8/26, age 24
Billy Lea, Bureau of Public Roads Crewman, originally from OR, died later at hospital
CCC Enrollees: Tensleep Camp F-35 in the Bighorn NF; Company 1811 - 3 months earlier came from Bastrop area of Texas, ages 17 to 20 years
John B. Gerdes
Will C. Griffith
Mack T. Mayabb
George E. Rodgers
Roy Bevens, died later at hospital in Cody, WY
Rubin D. Sherry
William Whitlock, died later at hospital
Ambrogio Garza, died later at hospital
On August 21, 1937, the tragic Blackwater Fire caused the death of 15 firefighters, injury of 38 others, and burned approximately 1,700 acres of National Forest System lands on the Shoshone National Forest, near Cody, Wyoming.
An electrical storm occurred in the general vicinity of Blackwater Creek on Wednesday, August 18th causing a fire, which was not detected until August 20th. At the time of detection the fire appeared to be only 2 acres in size and was located in the drainage bottom. By the evening of Friday, August 20th the fire had grown to approximately 200 acres and there were 58 men and 7 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 blow-up of the fire occurred at approximately 15:45 caused by the combination of an undiscovered "spot" and the passage of a dry cold front. In this conflagration 9 deaths occurred directly. Six additional men were so badly burned that death ensued, and 38 additional men suffered injuries. (from the excellent Blackwater Staff Ride) The Fireline Handbook was developed following this fire.
Urban Post and a number of men with him on the rocky knoll were badly burned, but survived.
Blackwater Fire Sketch map from a report on the Staff Ride website
Blackwater Fire Progression Map, from the Staff Ride website
Blackwater Fire, Shoshone National Forest, 1937
The following documents and reports came from the Blackwater Staff Ride documents page; for more, visit the website.
- Letter from the Regional Forester 9/37 (1.91 K pdf)
- Rocky Mountain Regional Bulletin 11/37 (7.41 K pdf) United States. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Bulletin Memorial Number Blackwater Fire. Vol. 20, No. 10: October 1937.
- Ranger Post's statement (2.135 K pdf) Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.
- Factors that Led to the Tragedy (1.482 K pdf) Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.
- Handling of the Blackwater Fire: Fire Control Notes (2.281 K pdf) by David P. Godwin. “The Handling of the Blackwater Fire.” Fire Control Notes. U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service. December 6, 1937.
- Death in Blackwater Canyon: American Forester 12/37 (3.908 K pdf)
- Smokejumpers and the Blackwater Fire by Karl Brauneis. “1937 Blackwater Fire Investigation.” Static Line. Vol. 3 – Edition 4, July 1997. (9 K pdf)
- FOREST ARMY, Remembering the CCC: Death on the Fire Line: The Blackwater Fire of 1937 (Excellent historical narrative by Michael, whose passion is CCC history.)
[Excerpt] In the immediate aftermath of the Blackwater Fire, David P. Godwin of the Forest Service Division of Fire Control based in Washington, DC conducted the government investigation of the event. In his report, Godwin found little fault with the foremen and supervisor’s handling of the fire. Godwin’s attention focused on the travel times of the units reacting to the fire and specifically on the critical delay experienced by the crew from the Tensleep camp. Godwin speculated that, had they arrived as scheduled, the Tensleep crew would not have been deployed where they were when the fire blew up and thus may very well have survived unharmed.
Today, Godwin is remembered as the man who, just two years after the Blackwater fire, authorized the expenditure of funds to carry out parachute jumping experiments linked to fire suppression. To say that Godwin, the man who investigated the Blackwater fire, had a hand in the creation of what came to be known as the smokejumper program is not an overstatement. One has to wonder what role the Blackwater tragedy had in sharpening Godwin’s resolve to put crews on the fire line in rapid fashion, thus leading to his support for airborne suppression tactics.
- Martin Alexander & Miguel Cruz, 2011: What are the Safety Implications of Crown Fires?
- Theysaid: 2001 "Original Intent" Ten Standard Fire Fighting Orders from Karl Brauneis with additional Historical note May, 11, 2006
- WLF Memorials and Monuments: Photo page
- Wildland Firefighters' Monument and Memorial Sites
- CCC Memorial Markers
Memorial Trail Marker built in 1938 by the CCC.
Text: Shoshone National Forest
Blackwater Fire August 20-24, 1937
This marks the beginning of the Fire Fighters' Memorial Trail which follows Blackwater Creek five miles to the place of origin of the fire and thence to other points of interest. This fire was controlled after burning over 1254 acres of forest. Fifteen fire fighters lost their lives and 39 others were injured when the fire was whipped up by a sudden gale on August 21. Signs and monuments mark the important locations along the trail, including the fire camps, the first aid station, Clayton Gulch where 8 men were killed, and the rocky knoll where Ranger Post gathered his crew to escape the fire.
Clayton Gulch Memorial built in 1938 by the CCC.
Text: On the afternoon og August 21, 1937 while fighting the Blackwater Fire, these brave men lost their lives in the gulch to the right of this marker.
Will C. Griffith
John B. Gerdes
James T. Saban
Alfred G. Clayton
Rex A. Hale
George E. Rodgers,
Mack T. Mayabb
Post Point Memorial, the third memorial built by the CCCs in 1938. Marks the location where the firefighters with Post sought refuge.
Text: Blackwater Fire August 20-24, 1937
Here on the afternoon of August 21, 1937, thirty-seven enrollees of CCC Company 1811 in charge of Ranger Post and Jr Forester Tyrell, with seven Bureau of Public Roads employees including foreman Davis and Fire Cooperator Sullivan in charge, took refuge from the fire. Five men attempted to escape through the fire and four of them -- Lea, Allen, Seelke and Sherry perished. Ranger Post and all of the forty who remained with him received burns of varying severity and three of these -- Junior Forester Tyrrell, and enrollees Whitlock and Garza -- died later
- Who Will Remember the Dead of Blackwater? FOREST ARMY, Remembering the Civilian Conservation Corps
- CCC Resource Page: Remembering Some of the Dead at Blackwater Creek with photos of enrollee Clyde Allen, enrollee Rubin Sherre, enrollee Earnest Seelke, and survivor enrolee Patzke.
- State of Wyoming Memorial Page: Wyoming Fallen Firefighters
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