Events mark 75th anniversary of deadly Blackwater Fire east of Yellowstone Park

Firefighters move through a chow line during the 1937 Blackwater Fire east of Yellowstone National Park. Fifteen firefighters were killed in the blaze, and a series of events are scheduled for the 75th anniversary of the blaze. (Jack Richard photo courtesy of Buffalo Bill Historical Center McCracken Research Library PN.89.114.21398.4)

Firefighters move through a chow line during the 1937 Blackwater Fire east of Yellowstone National Park. Fifteen firefighters were killed as a result of the fire, and a series of events are scheduled for the 75th anniversary of the blaze. (Jack Richard photo courtesy of Buffalo Bill Historical Center, McCracken Research Library - PN.89.114.21398.4)

From Staff Reports

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 photo)

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 Friday, Aug. 17, a collection of historic documents related to the Blackwater fire will be on display at the Wapiti Wayside, a visitor information center located at mile marker 21 on U.S. Highway 14/16/20, about six miles east of the Blackwater Firefighter Memorial. Forest Service employees will be available during daylight hours to answer questions and provide more information about the fire. The display will be in place through Tuesday, Aug. 21.

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.

If you go…

For more information, contact at Kristie Salzmann at 307-578-5190 or [email protected] 

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