Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as a New Deal program, and several camps were located in Pennsylvania. The CCC was charged with various types of projects including structural improvements, transportation enhancement, wildlife preservation, flood control and fire protection.

When several forest fires broke out in the vicinity of Sinnemahoning, Cameron County, on October 19, 1938, personnel from nearby CCC camps were dispatched to fight the fires. Unfortunately, the crews had received little training, and the fires spread quickly. After hours of attempting to get the fires under control, seven teenage members of the crew and a crew leader became separated from the others and were trapped between the fires. They were unable to escape the blaze and were killed. The unfortunate lack of training mirrored the trial nature of the CCC program itself. The bitter irony of the incident was that the youths were engaged in a program that was intended to help, train and employ them. Years later, according to Susan Hoy of the Cameron County Historical Society, a man confessed to setting the fire that day. He said he had set many. He believed it created work for people who were in so desperate need of it. He never thought anyone would be hurt.

A positive outcome emerged, however, from this devastating tragedy. It became a case study for the training of firefighters nationwide. The International Association of Wildland Fire established the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, which operates as a federally funded national inter-agency organization. The center has included the Pepper Hill Fire in its Lessons Learned program. Four areas of deficiency were determined in this case: training, fatigue, tactics and crew cohesion.

New and experienced Wildland firefighters are now taught that extensive training and drilling for different scenarios is critical prior to ever going out in the field. The CCC crews had received little to no training in firefighting and were expected to learn or intuit the necessary skills on the job.

Current firefighting guidelines provide for established rest periods to enable individuals to recover their stamina. A number of the individuals on the 1938 fire crews had returned from fighting another fire just hours before Pepper Hill.

 

Members of CCC Camp S-132, many of whom participated in fighting the Pepper Hill Fire. Charles Bogush, far right, was one of the unfortunate casualties. Cameron County Historical Society

Members of CCC Camp S-132, many of whom participated in fighting the Pepper Hill Fire. Charles Bogush, far right, was one of the unfortunate casualties. Cameron County Historical Society

Although the crew had a plan to use the nearby road as an anchor, one group, in the midst of the chaos, moved to the head of the fire believing they could be more effective in a different position. They lacked the experience to realize that without aviation support they could not ascertain the full scope of the fire and that in changing weather conditions the wind could cause the fire to react unpredictably. Today, firefighters work together in training situations and learn how to maintain lines of communication should something unforeseen occur. The CCC enrollees had rarely worked together and became separated because of their varied abilities while fire and smoke obscured their vision. There is no evidence that they received adequate direction from their crew leader during this critical time.

In addition to loss of human and native animal life, another result of the fire was the destruction of 134 acres of forest. A year after the fire, a popular site in Elk State Forest was named Memorial Spring and a commemorative plaque was dedicated to the eight victims. The Pennsylvania State Historical Marker was dedicated nearby in 2016 on the anniversary date of the fire.

 

Karen Galle is on the staff of PHMC’s State Historic Preservation Office and has been the coordinator of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program since 2005.