The Blackwater Fire caused the deaths of 15 firefighters in the summer of 1937.
The forest fire ignited because of a lightning storm on Aug. 18, but the fire was not detected until Aug. 20, initially burning only a few acres along Blackwater Creek. Enrollees from the nearby Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp were quickly put to work building a fire line around the blaze. Despite gentle winds, the fire had grown to 200 acres by dusk.
The following morning saw the arrival of other CCC crews and Forest Service personnel amounting to a force of over 200 firefighters. The new day also ushered in a storm front bringing strong, dry winds that fanned the fire to greater proportions. As teams of forest rangers and CCC crews dispersed over the mountainside, multiple spot fires began erratically swirling and changing directions due to violent winds ripping across the valley. The fire ultimately burned 1,200 acres.
Tragically, a crew of eight firefighters led by ranger Alfred Clayton were trapped by the exploding forest fire on the western flank of what came to be known as Clayton Mountain. Another team led by ranger Urban Post climbed upwards to escape the roaring blaze.
From a perch atop a rocky outcrop above tree line, Post and his men waited out the worst of the inferno. Although the group could move around on the ledge to avoid the subsequent waves of flames, the fire below burned so hot the rocks on which they stood became scorching hot. Some of the men died later from their burns, but most escaped with their lives.
All told, nine men died on the mountainside while another six were so severely burned they did not survive. An additional 38 men received severe burns from their prolonged proximity to the fire.
A major factor imperiling the safety of those firefighters in 1937 was the lack of radio communications. For crews on the ground to report changing fire conditions and coordinate their movements, runners had to carry handwritten notes between dispersed crews.
After studying the circumstances of the Blackwater Fire tragedy, the Forest Service began developing what would become the smoke-jumper program to address the dangerous lag in reaction times encountered by forest firefighters.
The brave men who lost their lives in the 1937 Blackwater Fire are honored with three monuments on the landscape. The main monument sits along the North Fork Highway at a large turnout. The Clayton Gulch Memorial is some five miles up the Memorial Trail on a ridge above the actual gulch where Clayton and his crew were trapped by the fast-moving cyclone of fire. Another small monument at Post Point denotes the rock promontory where Post and his crew scrambled above the fire.
All three monuments were constructed by CCC crews and dedicated in 1939.
CCC technician Rex Hale, who also lost his life in the fire, was memorialized on the local landscape with the christening of the nearby campground in his name. Hale was overseeing the construction of the site with his CCC comrades when they were called over to fight the fire.
A hike or ride to any of the Blackwater Fire memorials to pay your respects to the fallen firefighters is well worth your time.