WAPITI RANGER STATION — Over the past 40 years, Dave Sisk has jumped from planes as a smokejumper and managed fires big and small throughout the Northern Rockies.
Standing in a mountain meadow above Blackwater Creek in the Shoshone National Forest, it’s easy for Sisk to imagine what happened here on a hot August day 75 years ago, when a seemingly routine fire turned deadly.
He managed a wildfire here in 2003, and thoughts of the 1937 Blackwater blowup were never far away.
“Any time you’re in fire, especially if you’re in charge of a fire, that potential is always in the back of your mind,” Sisk said. “These guys in 1937 knew how to fight fire. What they didn’t know was that a cold front was off to the west heading in this direction.”
Shortly after 3 p.m. on Aug. 21, 1937, on a ridge not far from here, Ranger Alfred Clayton saw a small spot fire building below Ranger Urban Post and the men on his fire crew.
Started by lightning three days earlier, the fire had come to life with a breath of August wind. Noting the growing activity but lacking a radio, Clayton wrote a note warning Post of the trouble brewing below him.
“We’re on the ridge in back of you, and I’m going down to the spot (fire) in the hole,” Clayton wrote to Post. “It looks like it can carry on over the ridge east and north of you. If you can send any men, please do so, since there are only eight of us.”
It was the last anyone would ever hear of Clayton and his crew. By the end of the day, the Blackwater fire would become one of the deadliest fires in Forest Service history.
Signs of trouble
The fire began with a lightning strike from a storm that rumbled across the wilderness east of Yellowstone National Park on Wednesday, Aug. 18.
By Friday afternoon, Aug. 20, District Ranger Charles Fifield, staffing the Wapiti Ranger Station, received reports of smoke in the area above Blackwater Creek. He dispatched a handful of firefighters to the scene, believing the small fire could be easily contained.
But as the evening progressed and the winds began to stir, the creeping blaze came to life. Fire supervisors sent for gasoline-powered pumps and additional crews, hoping to keep the blaze from spreading and consuming valuable timber.
While night dispatching is now rare in the Forest Service, it was common practice in 1937. A 50-man crew from Yellowstone arrived at the fire at 2:30 a.m. Post arrived at 4 a.m. By daybreak on Saturday, Aug. 21, nearly 120 men had reached the scene.
“By 1937, the ‘10 a.m. policy’ was in place — put it out before the next burning period,” Sisk said. “That’s what the policy was on that day in 1937, and 120 firefighters for that size fire was probably adequate to do what they wanted to do.”
Conditions were changing fast by Saturday afternoon, with the temperature pushing 86 degrees. Humidity hovered at a twig-snapping 16 percent.
By 3:15 p.m., Post’s men were in place, building line to contain the blaze. Ranger Alfred Clayton was also there, joined by foreman James Saban and six enrollees with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
In the heat of the afternoon, something outside the fire perimeter caught Clayton’s eye. It was that small puff of smoke billowing up through the timber, sparked by wind-driven embers.
With pencil and paper, Clayton scratched his note asking Post to send more men. Clayton then took his own crew of seven into a gulch to attack the spot fire. His timing couldn’t have been worse.
Sisk believes that the weather service in Riverton knew a cold front, with its accompanying winds, was pushing in. The weather station in Pocatello had told them that the front had passed over Idaho hours earlier and was heading their way.
“Getting information here from Riverton was probably a 24-hour delay,” Sisk said, as field telephone lines — “number nine wire” — had to be unspooled. “They probably had number-nine wire lines running from here to Wapiti. They probably called on the number-nine wire to report the weather. Today, we’d have someone up in the air watching.”
Race for survival
When the runner arrived with Clayton’s letter, Post already knew something was wrong. The winds were shifting, growing to “gale force,” and the embers flew ahead of the flames.
“The smoke is thick, the air is hot; we hurry up the ridge,” Post would later write. “Heavy tools are left behind. We take lady shovels, Pulaski’s and canteens — we may need them for our own protection.”
Post ordered his 40 crewmen up the ridge, hoping they could reach an outcropping of rock before it was too late. Many were untrained and poorly equipped.
The men took cover in the rock just as the fire swept over the ridge, “coming first from one side and then the other.” They got prone on the ground but the rocks below them grew hot. Exposed flesh blistered and clothing caught fire.
“Some do not have time to respond,” Post wrote. “Red spots appear on faces, and skin is stripped from all exposed surfaces. The heat is terrific, and it seems unbearable, but we have no safer place. If this is the end, we must take it here.”
With the fire raging around them, instinct said run. But Post and foreman Paul Tyrrell, along with Bert Sullivan, urged the young Conservation Corps members to stay down.
It was good advice, but five men couldn’t stand the heat. They tried their luck by running into the flames, hoping to reach safety on the other side.
Badly burned, one man made it through. The other four did not.
Death on the mountain
Injured firefighters began to emerge from the blaze. The news wasn’t good. Firefighters were missing. Men weren’t returning to their rally points.
When the toll became clear, an urgent call was made to Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park for nurses and doctors. A search party was dispatched. Bodies were brought in.
“Searching parties were out most of Saturday night, and on Sunday, there were 112 men in searching parties,” regional forester Allen Peck reported weeks after the fire. “Search of the burned area was continued until it was certain that no casualty had been overlooked, and this was confirmed by a check of the rolls.”
Of the 40 men who ran with Post to that rocky ridge, 33 survived. Alfred Clayton and his seven men were dead. A search party found them lying by a brook, no more than 1,200 feet from the ridge.
Sisk believes that even with modern fire shelters, Clayton and his men would not have survived. The duration of the burn was too long, the fire too hot.
Sisk said the 1937 tragedy resulted from a combination of factors, including the “10 a.m. policy,” slow communication and a lack of timely weather information.
“They knew fire, but what they didn’t know was what would happen two days down the road, or the next day, because the weather forecasting system wasn’t as good as it is today,” Sisk said. “They didn’t understand fire behavior as well as we do today.”