Wyoming played a major role in wildland firefighter safety and strategy after the Blackwater Fire west of Cody killed 15 firefighters in 1937.
It was the largest loss of wildland firefighters since a burn-over killed 78 federal firefighters near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in 1910. The Blackwater tragedy came in the era of the Civilian Conservation Corps — some who died at Blackwater Creek were CCC members — and early forest management. As such it was analyzed and resulted in changes, including the beginning of smokejumping firefighters.
Crews who were dispatched to fight the Blackwater Fire were there to save acres of timber. Their jobs were mainly to dig a line around the fire’s perimeter while carrying backpacks of water and spray nozzles. Forest ranger Alfred Clayton led one crew.
While members were digging a line in steep country along the fire’s flank, the wind shifted and carried embers to ignite a spot fire below them. That trapped and killed Clayton and seven others.
Double Mountain was renamed Clayton Mountain after him.
Another crew bolted for the safety of a rocky outcrop but seven died there. More than 30 others were injured.
Dale P. Goodwin, assistant chief for fire control for the Forest Service, investigated. Wind was blamed.
Goodwin believed the answer was to attack fires sooner, according to an article by Karl Brauneis, a Shoshone National Forest firefighter, who wrote in the Spring, 2002 issue of “Fire Management Today.” Goodwin pushed for development of the nation’s first smokejumpers, which were formed two years later, Brauneis wrote.
Twenty-three wildland firefighters have died in the line of duty in Wyoming starting in the 1930s, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Nationwide, the toll stands at 1,075.
Across the country, 426 firefighters have been killed by burn-overs — the type of accident that the Safety Matters group seeks to address. Wyoming deaths by burnover make up 3.5 percent of that and are limited to the 15 killed at Blackwater Creek.
Another Wyoming fatality involved the “entrapment” of a fire engine in Thermopolis in 2000.
There have been close calls in the Equality State, however. The National Interagency Fire Center lists a burnover without fatalities near Cody in 1996, and another in the Bighorn National Forest in 2007.
In a well-documented incident in 2006, 10 firefighters survived a burnover in the Shoshone National Forest by deploying portable fire shelters. The crew was hiking in to monitor the Little Venus Fire in the Washakie Wilderness.
A packer and his 14-year-old son accompanied them. When the fire appeared unexpectedly in front of the two, they turned and bolted in what firefighters called a rodeo.
Firefighters couldn’t escape. One lay on a gravel bar in the Greybull River and got under her shelter.
The other nine pulled shelters over themselves not far away at the river’s confluence with Anderson Creek.
After one front of flames pass over them, some got out and burned un-charred grasses around them, then threw fire starters across the creek to burn out nearby timber before it could lend itself to the next wave.
Back in their shelters, they felt two, maybe as many as four additional “heat pulses” pass over them. They were in their shelters for an hour.