Category Archives: Fire Fighting

California Fires – 1917

Though it is not Pennsylvania, I thought it might be interesting to see what was happening 100 years ago in California. Here is just one report. From the Oakland Tribune comes this report of October 14, 1917.

TRUCKEE. Oct. 13. – One of the worst forest fires in years is burning about a mile west of Truckee. The fire started over a month ago from lightning and has been gradually spreading over the hills back of town until now it extends from Truckee almost to the head of Donner Lake, a distance of three miles and a width of two miles. Several hundred cords of wood belonging to B.A. Cassidy have burned and the wood haulers’ camp, with a great deal of supplies has been completely destroyed.

Forest Ranger Wilson of the government service, has a large force of men trying to hold the fire in check but a shift in the wind every afternoon makes it difficult to control.

From the Los Angeles Times, July 26, 1917

More than 450 newspaper articles reported on fires in California that year. Lives were lost to wildfires. Ranches, homes, and industrial sites were threatened and burned. It wasn’t the worst year for fires in California, but when it is your family or friends, your home, or place of employment, that was destroyed by a fire, it was a bad year.

100 Years Ago – October 1917

America was embroiled in the “War to End All Wars” and times were different. This week’s blog provides a look at what was happening in the fall of 1917.

The Fulton County News, McConnellsburg, PA, October 18, 1917

In the face of the fact that Pennsylvania has just passed through the worst forest fire season since 1908, Chief Forest Fire Warden Wirt reports that the average fire burned over just about half as large an area as in 1915, while the number of thousand-acre fires is twenty-five percent, under the 1915 record.

The total number of forest fires reported during the 1917 spring fire season is 1,746. The number reported in 1915 was 1,191, and in 1916, 1,013. The average area burned per fire was 157 acres in 1917; in 1916, 306 acres; and in 1916, 152 acres.

The full season for 1917, which is opening favorably, will probably reduce the average for the whole year to less than 140 acres.

The records of the Department of Forestry show that the fire wardens had to cope with unusually difficult weather conditions last spring. Two fires burned in January and even in February, a very unusual occurrence. During one week in May over a hundred fires were burning every day, the number of fires for this one week being 843, almost half the total number. The total area burned over was 275,097 acres, the total direct loss was $567,972, and the total cost of extinction was almost $35,000. Indirect losses, such as damage to watersheds and losses to labor, probably amount to several millions of dollars in addition to the direct timber loss.

Of the twelve counties which had over 50 fires each, Schuylkill leads with 108, followed in order by Luzerne with 92, Monroe with 88, Centre with 81 and Dauphin 72. Of the nine counties which had over 10, 000 acres each burned over, Dauphin leads with 20,757 acres, followed by Lycoming with 20,093 acres, Elk with 18.389 acres, Luzerne with 17,622 acres, and Centre with 15,949 acres. Of the nine counties which suffered losses of over $20,000 each, Juniata leads with a total damage of $71,714. followed in order by Lycoming with $57,609, Centre with $35,492, Luzerne with $29,458. and Blair with $25,765.

One hundred and eighty of the fires burned less than one acre; 1232 burned less than 100 acres; 1658 burned less than 1,000 acres and only fifty-nine burned over a thousand acres each. The largest single fire burned over 6,200 acres in Juniata County, and caused an estimated loss of $62,570. The second largest fire burned over 5,000 acres in Jefferson township, Dauphin County, but the damage was estimated at only $5,000.

 

The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC – Part 4 of 4

Pepper Hill

On Wednesday, October 19, 1938 the Lock Haven Express weather report stated, “Rain tonight and probably Thursday morning, colder on Thursday, and in central and west portions tonight.” The paper noted it had been 80o F. the day before.[i] The same paper reported that two small fires had occurred the day before, one near Haneyville and the other in Paddys Run. The Harrisburg Telegraph was predicting temperatures near 78o F with rain to follow.[ii]  The fall of 1938 was dry. While spring rainfalls had been near normal, the summer and fall proved much drier with precipitation 2 inches below normal.[iii] A killing frost had hit the northcentral part of the state on October 7 followed by higher than normal temperatures. The forest was tinder dry.

On the morning of October 18, 1938 a series of fires broke out near Lick Run and Jerry Run in Cameron County. The fires burned throughout the day and men from camp S-132 at Hunts Run were detailed to fight the fires. Additional men who had returned to camp from their regular duties were sent out to work the night shift after eating dinner. They returned to camp at 5:30 a.m. the following morning.

Along the First Fork of Sinnemahoning Creek, about four miles upstream from its confluence with Sinnemahoning Creek, at a place called Pepper Hill an arsonist had set fires on the west side of the valley. Truck driver, George Poloski was dispatched to check on the report of a wildfire in the area. At noon Poloski phoned District Forester Charles Baer to report the fires and returned to camp S-132 to eat and pick up the fire crews.

Two crews were dispatched from camp S-132. Both crews had been on the fire line all night and had only a few hours sleep when they were dispatched to the blaze. Crew 1 had 25 enrollees and was led by foreman Adolph Kammarath. Crew 2 had 22 men and was led by foreman Gilbert Mohney. The 49 men were exhausted from the previous night’s fire duty.

When the crews arrived on the fire scene they found four separate fires. A decision was made to attack the smallest fire. The terrain where the fire is located is some of the steepest to be found in Pennsylvania. Crew 2 under Foreman Mohney began building a fire line on the right flank of the fire, while others in the crew began backfiring. The going was tough and in 45 minutes only 200 feet of fire line had been constructed. The crew was instructed to move to the top of the mountain and construct a downhill line. As the crew proceeded to the top of the mountain the men became separated with some men stopping to rest while others moved on. At about 3:30 p.m. the crew noticed that the wind had shifted and the backfire they had set below had jumped their fire line and was burning toward them. The fire assumed the shape of a horseshoe. The fire burned on the panic stricken crew’s left and right as well as behind them.

Some sought shelter in the rocks. Others raced toward the summit in an effort to get away from the fire. The flames caught the men. In all the fire claimed eight lives. Foreman Gilbert Mohney, 38 of Ridgway, Basil Bogush, 19 of Conemaugh, John Boring, 19 of Johnstown, Howard May, 18 of Erie, and Andrew Stephanic 18, of Twin Rocks all perished at the scene of the fire. Ross Hollobaugh 18 of Rimersburg died the next day at Renovo Hospital. Stephen Jacofsky 17 of Johnstown died the next day at the hospital in St. Marys. George Vogel who was believed to be from New Kensington died November 2, in Renovo.

Over twenty others were injured in the fire, many requiring hospitalization. Peter Damico was severely burned, transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. and eventually returned to duty at camp S-132. Enrollees Kiliany and Gaydos were credited with leading many of the crew to safety.

In an ironic twist of fate rain began to fall about the same time the men were trapped and the 134 acre fire was extinguished, not through the efforts of the firefighters but rather by the heavy rain that fell that night.[iv]

In the days that followed federal, state and county officials began an investigation into how the fire started and how and why the men were trapped. Initial reports found in the press had the size of the fire at 800 acres, names were misspelled, and the hometowns were somewhat disorganized. George Wirt was the P.D.F. & W. investigator but the main investigation was conducted by federal and county officials. Cameron County District Attorney Edwin Tompkins would lead the county’s investigation. On October 22, 1938, three days after the fire Tompkins stated that “improper supervision” led to the deaths.[v] Tompkins said he would convene an inquest into the deaths and he “would subpoena everybody with the slightest connection with the case.”[vi] The C.C.C. investigation was under the direction of Colonel C.D. King, Commander of the Indiana District of the C.C.C. which covered Cameron County. Captain Alton Miller, Sub-district Commander and Lieutenant Rodman Hayes Cameron Camp Commander were the C.C.C. officials on site for the investigation.

On Monday, October 23, 1938 a mass was celebrated at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church for the seven dead. At the Hyner Camp, the flag was lowered to half-staff and taps was played in remembrance of their fallen comrades.[vii] Robert Fechner, Director of the C.C.C. sent condolences to the families of the deceased.[viii]

On October 31, 1938, District Attorney Tompkins began an inquest into the Pepper Hill Fire. The inquest was expected to last three days. Tompkins was concerned that the fire was arson caused and that improper supervision had led to the deaths.[x] The testimony began with parents of four of the deceased in attendance.

Early testimony of the witnesses indicated that they did not believe the fire could have started from others burning in the area, and trains and discarded smoking materials were also ruled out as sources of ignition.[xi]

On November 2, 1938 Earl Getz, supervisor of camp S-132, testified that “the youths had received some experience fighting fires in September.” When Getz was further questioned about how much training the men had received he refused to answer, stating that the information was in the records turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was conducting its own investigation. Lieutenant Rodman M. Haynes, reserve officer at the camp admitted that the book C.C.C. Safety Regulations Relating to Forest Fire Fighters, had not been issued at the camp until two days after the fatal fire. He also testified that no other regulations or information concerning the fighting of forest fires had been posted at the camp.[xii]

Later testimony from the C.C.C. men reported they had worked on roads all day of October 18 and then had been on a fire through the night. They had gotten only six hours of rest before they were dispatched to the Pepper Hill Fire.[xiii] As testimony went on, survivor enrollees testified about the conditions they faced, how they escaped and tellingly that they had not received any classroom instruction in firefighting.[xiv] The testimony in the Coroner’s Inquest concluded on November 10, 1938.

On November 12, 1938 the coroner’s jury of “experienced woodsmen” decided after hearing nine days of testimony that the fire’s cause was incendiary and set by “some person or persons unknown. The jury also found camp officials guilty of “laxity and negligence” and recommended that any officer in charge of the camp be reprimanded and disciplined in accordance with army regulations.[xv]

Though Tompkins’ inquest was closed the Pepper Hill Fire would have long-lasting ramifications in the C.C.C. and in forest fire fighting.

The CCC Declines

The Civilian Conservation Corps had passed its high water mark. Enrollments were down, largely in part to an improving economy. War in Asia, the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe were beginning to drive the economy. On January 18, 1939, Robert Fechner asked Congress to make the C.C.C. a permanent part of the federal government.[xvi] Congressman May of Kentucky, Chairman of the House Military Committee suggested giving the C.C.C. enrollees military training.[xvii] Director Fechner was quoted in the press as opposing military training in the C.C.C.[xviii]

In January of 1939, Robert Fechner made a proposal that the C.C.C. become a permanent agency of the Federal government. His proposal asked for permanent civil service status for the enrollees to continue the work they had been doing. Fechner’s proposal met with resistance from Congress, much as the same proposal from Roosevelt had a couple of years earlier.[xix] Fechner was, however opposed to compulsory military training of the C.C.C. He said, “I do not believe there is any need or justification for compulsory military training or military training of any character as the term is usually understood in the CCC.”[xx]

Not only was enrollment dropping due to increased jobs in the private sector but other problems began to crop up in the C.C.C. The Federal Security Agency (FSA) was created by Roosevelt to consolidate several offices and boards under one director. The C.C.C. lost its status as an independent organization. Fechner was furious and considered resigning.[xxi] Despite the changes the agency moved on.

It was still a dangerous place to work. On February 13, 1939 Captain Edward Jelens, a C.C.C. supervisor at Renovo died from injuries he received in an automobile accident on January 21st.  Five enrollees from the camp at the Gettysburg battlefield were injured when their truck overturned on June 8, 1939.[xxii]

In another incident, First Lieutenant Crenson E. Davis, commander of Camp S-116 near Clearfield disappeared on February 1, 1939 when he went to Clearfield to cash payroll checks. The 26 year-old was initially feared to be the victim of bandits.[xxiii] On March 8, 1939, Davis was arrested in Texas when he tried to enlist as a private in the Army under an assumed name.[xxiv]

As projects were completed camps began to move and shift. Enrollees were transferred to other camps as the camps were phased out. On May 12, 1939, Company 2328 at SCS-6 at Shelocta began to disassemble their buildings and move them to a new site near Homer City.[xxv] Maryland was unable to fill its quota of enrollees and Pennsylvanians were used.[xxvi]

On June 15, 1939, President Roosevelt issued an executive order that civilians, rather than Army officers would now be in charge of the C.C.C. camps.[xxvii] In early July Roosevelt announced that Paul V. McNutt would head the FSA.[xxviii]  Later in the month it was announced that Pennsylvania would be allowed to furnish 6,042 enrollees of who 344 would be war veterans.[xxix]

In July of 1939 work was progressing on what was to become known as the Wayside Rest Memorial. The project, two miles east of Emporium on route PA 120 was to be a memorial to the eight C.C.C. men who had lost their lives as a result of the Pepper Hill Fire. The memorial was conceived by Father Paul Giegerich, chaplain of the C.C.C. district. Each enrollee and officer was asked for a small contribution to the project, often just a nickel or dime. C.C.C. enrollees and officers from across the state contributed to make the project a reality.[xxx] On October 19, 1939, one year to the day after the Pepper Hill Fire, the Wayside Rest Memorial was dedicated.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland starting the war in Europe. The C.C.C. which had been in decline because of a lack of enrollees was further hampered by a lack of manpower, as American industry was roused out of its deep slumber of The Depression and jobs became plentiful.

Another blow to the viability of the C.C.C. came on December 31, 1939 when Robert Fechner died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. where he had been for the past five weeks after suffering a heart attack.[xxxi]

The CCC would continue until 1942. As the demands for men and materials for World War II increased, the CCC became an anachronism and funding for the program was eliminated as the world went to war.

[i] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 19, 1938

[ii] The Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 19, 1938

[iii] NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/

[iv] Schultz, Michael, Pepper Hill: A Tragedy, Wildland Firefighter, February, 2001, along with multiple other references including Ely, Warren, in Forest Fire Warden News, 1981, and multiple press accounts by UPI, AP, and INS.

[v] Bradford Evening Star and The Bradford Daily Record, Bradford, PA, October 22, 1938

[vi] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, October 22, 1938

[vii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 25, 1938

[viii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, October 27, 1938

[ix] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 29, 1938

[x] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 31, 1938

[xi] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 1, 1938

[xii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 2, 1938

[xiii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, November 8, 1938

[xiv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 10, 1938

[xv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 14, 1938

[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, January 19, 1939

[xvii] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, January 21, 1939

[xviii] The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, March 4, 1939

[xix] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, January 19, 1939

[xx] The Pittsburgh Courier, Pittsburgh, PA, March 4, 1939

[xxi] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010

[xxii] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, June 8, 1939

[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, February 2, 1939

[xxiv] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, March 8, 1939

[xxv] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, May 20, 1939

[xxvi] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, March 28, 1939

[xxvii] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, June 16, 1939

[xxviii] The Evening Sun, Hanover, PA, July 11, 1939

[xxix] The Gettysburg Times, Gettysburg, PA, June 24, 1939

[xxx] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 21, 1939

[xxxi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, January 1, 1940

The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC – Part 3

Life in the camps was generally good, though many arrived at camp unprepared for what lay before them. Many of the men were from cities and had never dreamed that places like Leetonia, Livonia or Laquin even existed.

The camp day began with reveille at 6:00 a.m. followed by physical training with breakfast at 6:30 a.m., then sick call, policing the camp and at 7:15 trucks were loaded with men and tools and they set out for the day’s work. At 4:00 p.m. the men returned to camp for flag lowering, dinner, and announcements. Following dinner the men had free time until lights out at 10:00 p.m.[i] the men were fed nourishing meals three times a day and many thrived on the food and increased vitality.

There were problems and complaints to be sure. Many of the complaints centered around bad food, dirty quarters, vermin infested bedding, bullying and hazing. The Army, which ran the camps, investigated the complaints and wrote most of them off owing to the personalities of the men.

As with any group of people when put together, personalities conflicted and sometimes it led to trouble. At camp NP 2 near Gettysburg a riot broke out on the night of March 26, 1934. Following the riot, Lieutenant James McDonnell commandant of the camp held a summary court and immediately discharged two men. It was reported that lights were smashed and bunks were destroyed in the barracks. It was reported that further action would be taken against other suspected leaders in the riot.[ii] In the summer of 1934 three men from the Shingle Branch Camp were arrested for creating a disturbance in Renovo.[iii]

The camps were segregated. Black enrollees were in separate camps. Other camps were largely comprised of men from the same area. For example a camp may be composed of men from western Pennsylvania, or southern Alabama. Some of the camps located in close proximity to each other that allowed for the men from the camps to meet in the local towns caused those regional and racial animosities to come to the surface and cause problems. Camp NP2 was a segregated camp and this probably played into the mix. In another incident a shooting occurred at the Medix Run Camp in Clearfield County. Though the shooting was not fatal, it was a serious incident and turned over to the Clearfield County courts for adjudication.[iv] Another near riot with racial undertones happened at a camp near Kane on August 3, 1933. The Kane Republican reported that the seven were dismissed from the C.C.C. and sent home.[v]

On June 23, 1937 enrollees from the camps at Cooks Run and Two Mile Run, both near Westport in western Clinton County met on the streets of Renovo and began to fight. The riot which involved over 250 enrollees was caused by regional animosities. The Cooks Run camp was southern men and the Two Mile Run camp was comprised of Pennsylvanians. Though the Civil War had ended some 72 year prior, there were still grudges. Despite the fighting no arrests were reported.[vi]

Despite problems the C.C.C. enrollees became community members for the time they were there. On June 15, 1933 two C.C.C. men from the Hyner camp rescued a young girl from drowning in the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at Renovo.[vii]

As the program evolved, projects in areas concluded and enrollments were up camps were scheduled for closure. Another factor involved in the closings was 1936 was an election year. FDR in an effort to balance the federal budget proposed cutting the program despite its success. When the proposal was made to Congress both parties rebelled, Roosevelt backed off his proposal to reduce the camps to 300,000 men.[viii] In 1937 twenty camps were closed in Pennsylvania and 56 remained open.[ix] The year of 1936 is generally considered the “high water mark” of the C.C.C.

The C.C.C. was so prominent in American life and culture that Paramount Studios produced a movie, “It’s A Great Life” starring Joe Morrison and Paul Kelly, that detailed the life of the C.C.C. in 1936.[x] The movie was filmed in California and enrollees participated in the film project.

On March 17, 1936 one of the most devastating floods to ever hit Pennsylvania began. Known as the Saint Patrick’s Day Flood, practically every section of the state was affected. The C.C.C. proved invaluable in rescue and recovery efforts, helping the stricken people during and after the flood.

Despite their efforts, not all were happy with the program. Pittsburgh mayor William N. McNair, a long-time critic of FDR and his administration blamed the flooding on the efforts of the C.C.C. McNair was quoted as saying, “As long as these boys are in the woods we’re going to have floods.”  He blamed the C.C.C. for clearing brush and cutting trees in riparian areas allowing for faster runoff causing the floods. In concluding his rant against the program he also stated, “And in addition to causing floods these boys cause forest fires. I’ve seen them go out for a hike or lunch and throw their pop or milk bottles under bushes. What happens? Along comes the wind and exposes the broken glass. The sun hits the glass and you have a fire. I want to take these boys out of the woods.”[xi] Whether McNair actually believed what he was saying or was just bloviating to score political points in the wake of the devastating flood is unclear.

L.S. Gross, Supervisor of the Allegheny National Forest was quick to respond to Mayor McNair’s charges, and without naming him directly it was clear that Gross was pointing out the fallacy of McNair’s accusations. He detailed how the state had been hit by an unusually large amount of precipitation over the past winter and it rapidly melted. Gross pointed out that the forest duff had been reduced by years of unregulated logging and fires thus reducing the water holding capacity of the forest floor. “Removal of vegetation over widespread areas on the watersheds has not been undertaken. The construction of forest roads and other developments represents an area so insignificant in comparison to the forested area of the state that such an assumption that the CCC is at fault is incredible. The real fault lies in man’s carelessness with fire in the forest.”[xii]

As 1937 progressed, the economy was beginning to improve. Young men were finding gainful employment and enrollment was beginning to drop. As a result camps began to close and consolidate. Across the country 60 camps would be closed because of the drop in enrollment.[xiii]

It wasn’t all trees and clean air. There were accidents and tragedy involved with the C.C.C. On June 28, 1933, Thomas Fox, 18 of Philadelphia, was killed when he fell from a service truck. Fox was a member of camp S-70 near Waynesboro in Franklin County. It is believed he was the first C.C.C. enrollee killed in the line of duty. The camp was one of the first in Pennsylvania having been erected on May 6, 1933.[xiv]

The first fire related death occurred on August 19, 1933. Stanley Ferguson, 19 of Owego, NY, was killed fighting a forest fire in Idaho when a tree fell on him.[xv]

A bizarre incident claimed the lives of two enrollees on June 30, 1933. The men were killed at the C.C.C. camp at Pine Grove Furnace, Cumberland County, when lightning struck the tent they were in. The dead were identified as Robert C. Armstrong and Herman B. Chuderwicz, both of Pittsburgh.  Lawrence McGuire also of Pittsburgh was taken to the Army Medical School hospital at Carlisle and recovered. [xvi]

George Roberts of East Berlin, Adams County was injured when his motorcycle collided with a car near Mount Holly Springs on  August 7, 1933. He was a member of Camp S-55 at Landisburg. It was reported he suffered a fractured skull and broken arm.[xvii]

Returning to their camp at Shingle Branch, Clinton County, on September 2, 1933, a truck carrying 12 C.C.C. men overturned killing William Arnold, 22 of North Bend and injuring the others. The men had been on a detail to pick up provisions in Lock Haven for the camp. Descending a grade, the truck went out of control and overturned. Arnold died of a broken neck.[xviii] On September 19, Henry Appenzeller of Philadelphia became paralyzed when he reached above his head to put away some dishes in the camp mess hall. Appenzeller was involved in the accident on September 2, and was treated at Renovo Hospital for an injury to his shoulder and lacerations to his hand. Following his paralysis he was transported to Renovo Hospital where x-rays determined he had two broken vertebrae in his neck. He was transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. for further treatment.[xix]

M. Fink, 42 of Ridgway, was fatally injured when a large tree he was cutting fell on him at the camp near Croyland on November 4, 1933.[xx] Judging by his age Mr. Fink was probably an LEM.

Not all injuries were work related. Nello Collette of Camp Lowell Thomas, near Trout Run, Lycoming County died of a fractured skull on March 21, 1934. “The unfortunate incident was from a boyish fistic combat.”[xxi] On May 7, 1934 a canoe capsized on Lake Mokoma at Laporte in Sullivan County. William Kelly, 24 of Philadelphia drowned in the incident.[xxii]

Vehicles continued to prove dangerous to the C.C.C. enrollees. On July 23, 1934 several C.C.C. men in a truck on the way to a forest fire from their camp a Duhring, Forest County , were shaken up but none required hospitalization.[xxiii] A couple of months later on October 19 Franklin Page died from injuries he received when he fell from the back of a truck and was dragged some distance when his foot was caught in the rear gate of the truck. Franklin, of Sharon, PA was a member of C.C.C. camp S – 76 at State Camp.[xxiv] The following spring, on May 28, 1935 a truck carrying 25 C.C.C. enrollees overturned near Kane. Three of the enrollees required hospitalization at Kane Hospital.[xxv] The men were responding to a forest fire near Chapel Forks, McKean County. And on July 18 two men were injured when a truck carrying equipment to the new C.C.C. camp west of Huntersville, Lycoming County, ran off the road and upset.

The deadliest incident in the history of the C.C.C. occurred on Labor Day, 1935 in the Florida Keys. A hurricane, struck a C.C.C. camp of 684 veterans.  In the aftermath 44 of the dead were identified, 238 were missing, and 106 others were injured.[xxvi]

On May 1, 1936, Daniel Dallas of Philadelphia and assigned to the Tobyhanna Camp, Monroe County died of injuries sustained in a truck accident on April 28. The truck with 17 men aboard was responding to a forest fire when it overturned. Dallas was thrown against a rock. He was transported to a hospital in Scranton where he died. Three others were injured in the accident and required hospitalization.[xxvii]

On April 30, 1937, Donald C. Kresskey, 20 of Bethlehem died at the Renovo Hospital from injuries he received when a ledge of rocks on which he was standing gave way, crushing him. Donald was a member of the Two Mile Run camp. By all accounts the C.C.C. was a comparatively dangerous place with an injury rate of seventeen per thousand in 1935, many of the accidents were related to motor vehicles.[xxviii]

The worst firefighting tragedy occurred on August 22, 1937. A fire in the Absaroka region in northwestern Wyoming claimed the lives of 11 firefighters, and injured scores of others when they were overrun by fire. [xxix] But Pennsylvania was not immune to death from fires. The worst was yet to come.


[i] Pennsylvania DCNR, The CCC Years, http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/stateparks/thingstoknow/history/cccyears/index.htm

[ii] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, March 27, 1934

[iii] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, August 3, 1934

[iv] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 15, 1933

[v] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, August 4, 1933

[vi] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, June 24, 1937

[vii] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA,  June 15, 1933

[viii] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010

[ix] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, September 30, 1937

[x] The Daily Courier, Connellsville, PA, February 14, 1936

[xi] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, March 27, 1936

[xii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 2, 1936

[xiii] The News-Chronicle, Shippennsburg, PA, June 4, 1937

[xiv] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, June 29, 1933

[xv] Lebanon Daily News, Lebanon, PA, August 19, 1933

[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, July 1, 1933

[xvii] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, August 7, 1933

[xviii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, September 5, 1933

[xix] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, September 19, 1933

[xx] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, November 4, 1933

[xxi] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934

[xxii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, May 7, 1934

[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, July 23, 1934

[xxiv] The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 20, 1934

[xxv] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, May 28, 1935

[xxvi] History of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Its Lasting Legacy, Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, Inc., Edinburg, VA, 2010

[xxvii] The Plain Speaker, Hazleton, PA, May 1, 1936

[xxviii] Speakman, Joseph M. Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3, Washington, D.C

[xxix] The Morning Herald, Uniontown, PA, August 23, 1937

The Civilian Conservation Corps – CCC – Part 2

On May 9, 1933 the Harrisburg Telegraph reported that a CCC camp had begun operations at a site northeast of Waynesboro near Old Forge. It was located in the Mont Alto District and W. L. Byers was the district forester. He noted that the men would build fire breaks, trails, and roads. They would also work on erosion and flood control projects as well as being subject to call for fighting forest fires.[I] 

On May 11, 1933 FDR issued Executive Order 6129 that authorized 25,000 veterans of the Spanish American War and World War I to enroll in the program. There were no age or marital restrictions on these men and unemployed veterans rushed to fill the ranks. By the end of 1933 there were six veteran’s camps in Pennsylvania. They were located at Beaver Springs, Snyder County, Wheelerville, Sullivan County, Sinnemahoning, Cameron County, Farrandsville, Clinton County, Chaneysville, Bedford County, East Stroudsburg, Monroe County and Edgemere, Pike County.

That May of 1933 fires burned across Pennsylvania. The CCC was growing fast and the Kane Republican noted that a fifth camp for the Allegheny Nation Forest was being established at Highland Corners. The camp was originally proposed for Owls Nest but the site was moved.[ii] Camps for the young men were springing up across Pennsylvania.

On June 21, 1933 a CCC camp went into operation at Asaph, Tioga County. The camp was comprised primarily of young men from the New Castle area. A ‘special reporter’ Don Lanigan, most probably an enrollee, reported back to the New Castle News of a fire they fought on July 20, 1933. The fire reportedly burned “several acres of brush.”[iii]

Robert Bender of Lebanon wrote a letter to the Evening Report in Lebanon from a camp near Clearfield. He reported of fighting a fire that took five days to contain and extinguish.

“Our company fought the fire day and night. One group of 100 would go out and fight the flames for five hours, then be relieved by another group of 100. We worked from 7:30 in the morning until 12 o’clock at night. We used Indian water pumps which hold about five gallons and weigh seventy-five pounds, and we were tired at night.”[iv]

On December 5, 1933 a late fall fire burned over 200 acres on South Mountain in Cumberland County and CCC crews were instrumental in extinguishing the blaze.[v]

By the end of 1933 the Civilian Conservation Corps was off and running. During the first week of January, 1934 Secretary of Forests and Waters, Lewis Staley was ebullient about the work being conducted by the CCC. He noted that the 92 camps on state forest and state gamelands had a compliment of 18,000 men. They had completed 1600 miles of truck trails (now known as state forest roads), 1,400 miles of foot and horse trails and built 150 bridges. They had reduced fire hazards on 1,350 acres, and cut 150 miles of fire breaks. They had erected 4 steel fire towers and worked on blister rust and pine beetle eradication. They had developed public camping areas, cleared roadsides and built and maintained state forest telephone lines.[vi] The crews of laborers were led by “Local Experienced Men” or “LEMs” who had experience in such things as construction, forestry, mechanics or other vocational skills. Unlike the enrollees these locals were hired with no age or marital restrictions.[vii]

In preparation for the spring fire season CCC crews were being trained on firefighting techniques. State officials were describing the crews “as one of the most efficient forest fire fighting units yet organized among the emergency conservation workers.”[viii]

The CCC crews were being trained in firefighting and organized in preparation for the spring fire season. “Special training during regular working hours is provided for the fire crews by forest fire inspectors. On the fire line each crew is trained to split into two parts, each subcrew consisting of one foreman, one axeman, one brush hook man, five rakers, one torchman, two patrolmen and two spray tank men.”[ix] The CCC crews at Camp Lowell Thomas at Trout Run, Lycoming County were tested on their efficiency when a fire that was begun by their brush burning activities started a forest fire that burned over 300 acres.[x]

On March 26, 1934 an announcement was made that nine CCC camps in Pennsylvania would be closed. According to the administration in Washington, D.C. the camps would be moved to other states. At the time Pennsylvania had 92 camps under state control, 7 camps under the U.S. Forest Service and 4 under the direction of the National Park Service.[xi]

On March 21, 1934, Frank Bowes, reported from Camp Lowell Thomas at Trout Run, Lycoming County that “Over thirty percent of the camp is leaving on March 31. Most of them are returning home with the prospect of jobs.”[xii] Their enrollment was up as they were only allowed to serve for five yearly quarters.

At that point there were 30,000 men enrolled in the program and many were due to leave because their enlistments were up. They were also prepared to release men, “who, in the past few months have proven insubordinate or otherwise undesirable.”[xiii]

The men whose enrollment was up were due to be replaced by new recruits. Secretary Staley was exasperated by the closures and noted that it would become difficult if not impossible to complete the projects as planned if the nine camps were closed.[xiv]

On May 10, 1934 the Morning Herald from Uniontown ran a page one article that the corps was looking for 105 applicants from the area.[xv] That same day The Evening News of Harrisburg noted that Charles Mattis of Elizabethtown had resigned his post at the Camp in Armstrong Valley and was replaced “by a man named Christ of Lickdale” who had formerly been the superintendent of the Indiantown Gap camp which had been “abandoned.”[xvi]

The summer of 1934 was particularly dry in Pennsylvania and the forest floor dried to the point that fires would burn in the duff, smoldering for days. Extinguishing these types of fires is difficult and time consuming and the labor provided by the CCC proved essential to extinguishing these fires. In the ANF the CCC men were used to patrol the forest and close roads to automobiles.[xvii]

Newspapers, for the most part were particularly eager to print news about the CCC and letters to the editor were included wherever they were found. The Daily Republican of Monongahela printed one such letter in its May 12, 1934 edition from Kard Kraus who was part of the 359th Company at Camp S-71, known as the Kenneth B. Watts Camp, near Philipsburg in Centre County. In the letter he speaks of fighting a large forest fire that burned along covered a 12 mile stretch and burned 4 barns, 2 houses, and a garage at Moshannon and the baggage room at Peale.

“….The wind was so strong and the brush so dry that we did not have much chance to check the fire. It burned from Sunday morning to Thursday afternoon. We were also handicapped by several fires starting at different places in the mountains, burning between 10 and 50 acres at each fire. And they claim they were incendiary. They had 44 CCC camps beside the Rangers and civilians fighting the fires. They worked in shifts. Sometimes we worked 18 hours in a shift when there was danger of barns or houses burning.”

“Hot meals were brought out every 4 or 5 hours and that would be all the rest we would get as the wind would blow our back fires across the line and we would have a hard time checking it again. It is a hard and hot job along the fire line trying to check it and water is hard to get, sometimes carrying it a quarter mile up the mountain from the creeks. There is also danger of being trapped as the fire was burning on 5 ridges and we had to be on the lookout and listen to the foreman who was always patrolling ahead of the fire.”

“There were thousands of acres and millions of trees burned. We are glad to have gotten the out with the help of rain.”[xviii]

In 1934 eleven more camps opened in Pennsylvania.

By the end of July, 1934 H.B. Rowland of the PDF&W noted that the CCC had been invaluable in forest fire suppression. He announced that 25,000 man-days of labor had been expended in fighting 328 or the 3,250 fires that had broken out in Pennsylvania that year. He noted that the men were largely used as reserve fire fighting units and assisted the regular forest fire wardens and their crews.[xix]

In the spring of 1935 FDR was looking to expand the CCC and make it a permanent part of the Federal government. Roosevelt was particularly concerned that another drought like that of 1934 could devastate the country. The program would create shelterbelts of tress to prevent erosion, reforest logged and burned over areas and provide employment for the unemployed.[xx]

The Daily Republican heard from one of its readers who was in the C.C.C.

Dear Sir:

Will you please send me The Daily Republican paper. I would like to know what is going on in the home town. Well here is something about the camps.

The CCC camp is just the place for a young boy of 18 years of age. They either make you or break you in these camps and they always build you up and you are out in the forest. You learn something about the forest, like different trees and forest fires and other things on the order of trees.

And that good mountain air and fresh water. It is a nice place.

Yours truly

Gildo Pietroboni[xxi]

The spring of 1935 five new camps of 216 men each were proposed for the Allegheny National Forest.[xxii] Robert Fechner proposed expanding the corps by an additional 230,000 men and making the camp infrastructure “portable” insofar as was possible. Buildings would be bolted together on assembly and could be dismantled and moved as necessary. Each new camp would be assigned 15,000 acres on which to complete various projects.[xxiii] Pennsylvania was second to New York with an increase in enrollees from 21,951 to 48,700 men.[xxiv]

With all of the other projects the CCC was completing, fighting forest fires was a prominent part of their work. Many accounts of CCC workers fighting forest fires were reported.

Henry W. Shoemaker, publisher of the Altoona Tribune, noted that an opponent of the New Deal from Pittsburgh commented on the efficiency of the CCC in particular their ability to fight forest fires and wanted to make 5,000 of the enrollees permanent firefighters in the state’s forests.[xxv]


[i] Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, May 9, 1933

[ii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, May 1, 1933

[iii] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, July 20, 1933

[iv] Evening Report, Lebanon, PA, July 31, 1933

[v] The News-Chronicle, Shippennsburg, PA, December 5, 1933

[vi] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, January 5, 1934

[vii] Speakman, Joseph M. Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Prologue Magazine, Fall 2006, Vol. 38, No. 3, Washington, D.C

[viii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, March 13, 1934

[ix] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, March 13, 1934

[x] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934

[xi] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, March 26, 1934

[xii] New Castle News, New Castle, PA, March 21, 1934

[xiii] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, March 26, 1934

[xiv] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, March 26, 1934

[xv] The Morning Herald, Uniontown, PA, May 10, 1934

[xvi] The Evening News, Harrisburg, PA, May 10, 1934

[xvii] Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, July 30, 1934

[xviii] The Daily Republican, Monongahela, PA, May 12, 1934

[xix] Mount Carmel Item, Mount Carmel, PA, July 31, 1934

[xx] The Gazette and Daily, York, PA, April 4, 1935

[xxi] The Daily Republican, Monongahela, PA, April 5, 1935

[xxii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 10, 1935

[xxiii] The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, April 10, 1935

[xxiv] The Indiana Gazette, Indiana, PA, April 27, 1935

[xxv] Altoona Tribune, Altoona, PA, May 10, 1935

Summer Fires

Almost every day as we turn on the TV or get the national news via computer or smartphone, we see images of and reports of wildfires devastating someplace. It can be the foothills in Southern California, the mountains in Montana, the outskirts of Phoenix and even Portugal.  Summer fires are common in many parts of the world.

In Pennsylvania summer fires are not unheard of, they are just not common. From 1940 to 2010 summer fires in June, July and August account for only 8.7% of the total number of fires and 5.6% of the total acreage from 1960 to 2010. This is according to DCNR’s records.

Summer fires in Pennsylvania are a different kind of animal. The fires are often small and not burning very fast, but they tend to burn hot and into the dry duff. They require digging out. Crews may work for days on a fire that is less than an acre.

Yet large fires can and have happened in the Keystone State. On July 14, 1886, The Forest Republican, of Tionesta reported what they described as “One of the most destructive forest fires that ever visited this section of the country” near Sheffield, Warren County had burned over the lumber camps and peeled bark of the Horton, Crary & Co. Near Brockway in Jefferson County fires were reported “in every direction” during July of 1887. In July of 1894 a fire broke out that threatened the large mill of the Medix Run Lumber Company.

On July 10, 1962, 73 persons including 59 children in 13 families were made homeless when a forest fire, believed started by children playing with matches, bore down on the village of Hawstone near the Mifflin – Juniata County line in the Lewistown Narrows section on the south side of the Juniata River. Twenty-one frame dwellings, along with a church and a mobile home were destroyed. On July 19, 1966, lightning started a forest fire on Piney Mountain in Adams County. The 25 acre blaze required bulldozers to contain.

The summer of 1993 was dry and fires continued to burn through the summer and into the fall. A fire in Laurel Run Borough, Luzerne County began on July 22nd and was not extinguished until August 8th, 18 days later. The fire covered 168 acres.

These are just a few of the thousands of fires that burned during the month of July. Despite the fact that there is now a “Flash Flood Warning” across much of the state as I write this, remember, wildfires can and do burn in the summer.

Legislation That Created the Allegheny National Forest and Strengthened Forest Fire Protection in Pennsylvania

On March 1, 1911, President Taft signed the Weeks Act into law. The Weeks Act authorized the federal government to create national forests on lands within watersheds of navigable streams or rivers. These new public lands would be used to regulate stream flow and revitalize the forests. They would be under the control of the U.S. Forest Service, but the location had to be agreed upon by federal, state, and local governing bodies. They could not be taken by condemnation, but had to come from a willing seller. This was the act that would allow for the eventual creation of the Allegheny National Forest.

Ninety-three years ago today, on June 7, 1924 the Clark-McNary Act was signed into law by President Coolidge. The federal law allowed the Secretary of Agriculture to cooperate with states for forest fire protection and prevention. It was the beginning of the cooperative arrangements between the states and federal government to share resources. In addition the act strengthened the Weeks Act passed in 1911 to allow the federal government to acquire any lands capable of producing forest products, rather than just headwaters of navigable rivers. This greatly expanded the role of the U.S. Forest Service in the East.

Two years later one of the worst fires to ever strike the ANF would happen at a place called Owls Nest.

 

Can You Imagine? – Wildfires in Pennsylvania Burned With Intensity

It shocks the sensibilities of the modern reader who is used to a twenty-four hour news cycle and video coverage of even minor events, that fires of the magnitude described in The Carbon Advocate on May 15, 1880 was not described in more detail.

Twenty thousand acres have been burned over by forest fires in Pike and Monroe counties.

The acreage burned over was in all probability not a single fire, but probably multiple fires. According to DCNR, Bureau of Forestry records total fire acreage for the entire state has not exceeded 20,000 acres since 1964.

That May destructive forest fires were raging in Indiana County, near the county seat of the same name. During the same month not only forests burned but the boroughs of Milton in Lycoming County, and Coudersport in Potter County, suffered serious fires which destroyed most of the towns. The fires, however, were not a result of wildfires. However the hot dry conditions that caused the flammability of the forests contributed to the desiccation of the wooden structures, allowing them to easily catch fire and burn.

May the Fourth Be With You – And Not Wildfires in Pennsylvania

May Fourth – a day when wildfires burned across Pennsylvania with reckless abandon.

The Clearfield’s Raftsman’s Journal, on May 4, 1870 noted:

Within the past week extensive fires have been raging in the forest in various parts of this county, no doubt, destroying much valuable timber. No other damage has been done so far as we know.

The Pittsburg Dispatch, May 4, 1891 reported fires near Erie, as well as in McKean, Elk, and Forest counties. During the first week of May fires burned through the woods and fields of Somerset County, east of Somerset. Thousands of acres were reported to have burned along with houses, barns and fences. At the same time a fire near Scalp Level on the Somerset – Cambria line was burning unchecked because of the dry conditions.

On May 4, 1922 a 2,500 acre fire began on the watershed of the Tipton Water Company in Blair County.

Trains starting fires were a problem that week for the Moshannon District fire crews. More than 500 acres were burned in four separate fires started by trains during the week of May 4, 1951. A fire between Medix Run and Benezette burned over 200 acres and a fire in Covington Township, Clearfield County burned over 100 acres. Smaller fires were also reported along railroad lines in Clearfield and Elk counties.

In the Poconos a fire broke out on May 4, 1951 near Hypsy Gap destroying 300, acres and a fire near Bushkill in Pike County burned over another 200. The fire near Bushkill appeared to be extinguished, but five days later it broke out again.

On South Mountain fire again reared its ugly head on May 4, 1963. Three fires burned an estimated 850 acres. The largest fire was a 600 acre conflagration that burned near Big Flat. The fire jumped the Arendtsville – Shippensburg Road at one point and burned down the mountain. Another fire near Mainsville burned 250 acres of South Mountain and the third fire at the intersection of Ridge Road and the Huntsdale – Pine Grove Road (PA Route 233) burned less than an acre.

And the infamous Two Rock Fire was declared extinguished on May 4, 1990.

May the fourth be with you.