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Local Staff Ride Archive

Staff Ride to the Blackwater Fire

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On August 21, 1937, the tragic Blackwater Fire caused the death of 15 firefighters, burning approximately 1,700 acres of Shoshone National Forest land, 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 blowup of the fire occurred at approximately 1545 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.

Preliminary reports on this lightning fire showed that initial action was vigorous; quite remarkably so, considering the remote location of the fire and that the Shoshone National Forest was considered a low-danger forest. The forest didn't even have lookout stations. Up until 1939, the Blackwater Fire was the largest loss of life from a single national forest fire since 1910.

The Blackwater Fire was the first fatality fire to have significant investigation and study of the event done immediately after the tragedy. This analysis of the fire eventually led to the development of the smokejumper program, a management action to address the time delay problems encountered for crews responding to the fire.

The Blackwater Fire Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Karl Brauneis - U.S. Forest Service - Shoshone National Fores
  • Rick Connell - U.S. Forest Service - Shoshone National Forest
  • Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Chris Huhnerkoch - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
  • Shawna Lagarza - U.S. Forest Service - San Juan National Forest
  • Randy Skelton - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
  • Chris Schow - U.S. Forest Service - Shoshone National Forest
  • Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center

The interview of Johnny J. Levine was conducted by Conrad Smith (Professor University of Wyoming) in November 1995.