Commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Blackwater fire

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Blackwater Fire

Blackwater FireLast May we had an article about the 1937 Blackwater fire that killed 15 firefighters east of Yellowstone National Park. On Sunday and Tuesday the U.S. Forest Service will be holding events to commemorate the 75th anniversary of that tragic fire.

A lightning strike on Aug. 18, 1937 in the Shoshone National Forest at the eastern border of Yellowstone National Park sparked a wildland fire that burned for two days in remote terrain before it was reported to the U.S. Forest Service.

The first men to respond were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that put the unemployed to work in the nation’s parks and public lands on a wide range of public works projects.

On Aug. 21, three days later, the Blackwater Fire had grown from a couple of acres to about 200, and dozens of men were fighting the fire in rugged terrain south of U.S. Highway 14/16/20, about 12 miles east of Yellowstone’s eastern boundary.

An oncoming cold front brought a sudden and unexpected shift of winds, catching many of the firefighters off-guard. Nine men were killed as the blaze quickly advanced, and six others later died from their burns. Another 38 were injured.

The 1937 Blackwater Fire burns in rugged country in the Shoshone National Forest east of Yellowstone National Park. (USFS archival photo)

The tragedy was the biggest loss of lives from a forest fire in a generation, and drew national headlines. A detailed investigation of the fatalities — the first of its kind — helped focus new attention on the importance of early attack of wildland fires, leading to the development of the smokejumper program.

The Forest Service has planned a series of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the fatal fire, including a ceremony at the roadside memorial between Cody, Wyo. and Yellowstone, and a hike to a backcountry memorial commemorating the fatalities.

To prepare for the 75th anniversary, the Forest Service has performed maintenance, restoration, and signing along the Blackwater National Recreation Trail and restoration work on the Clayton Gulch memorial marker.

On Sunday, Aug. 19, the Forest Service will lead a field trip at 9 a.m. from the Blackwater trailhead to the Clayton Gulch monument, with interpretation of points along the way. The 8-mile round-trip hike moves through moderately difficult terrain, with the trail starting at about 6,200 feet in elevation and rises to about 9,500 feet. Participants should plan on a six-hour trip. They should also bring their own lunch, drinking water, bear spray, appropriate attire for changing mountain weather and any additional necessary items.

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, the Forest Service will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Blackwater fire with a wreath-laying ceremony at 10 a.m. at the Firefighters Memorial. Guests will include former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson and Forest Service director of fire and aviation Tom Harbour.
Thanks go out to Chris and Dick

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.