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Incident Name: Pepper Hill Fire
Date: 10/19/38
Personnel: 8 lives lost (see below)
Age: "boys" 17-19 yrs old and their 38 yr old supervisor
Agency/Organization: Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Hunts Run Camp S-132; supervisor was employee of the Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Water
Position: Young Enrolees of the CCC

Summary:

Gilbert Mahoney, 38, hometown Ridgeway
Basil Bogush, 19 hometown Conemaugh
John Boring, 19, from Johnstown
Howard May, 18, hometown Erie
Andrew W. Stefphanic, 18, hometown Twin Rocks
Ross Hollobaugh, 18, hometown Rimersburg, died the next day, 10/20
Stephen Jacofsky, 17, hometown Johnstown, died the next day, 10/20
George Vogel, 17, hometown unknown, died 2 weeks later, 11/2

At 1300 hours on 10/19/38, two crews of inexperienced 17 and 18 year old "boys" from CCC Hunts Run Camp S-132 and their supervisors were sent to rugged, remote Elk State Forest near Sinnemahoning at to fight an arson fire on Pepper Hill Mountain. They had fought a fire the previous day and night and hadn't returned to the camp until 0530 hrs. They'd had only 4-5 hours sleep.

When they got to the fire and with fire on their left, they were told to rake the leaves to make a fire line starting at the road, going down a bit then going uphill. A back fire was set to reinforce the line. Some of the crew were assigned to watch that the back fire did not cross the line, while others from Crew 2 were sent further uphill. By two reports 18 to 25 young men were strung out on the hillside, because some were more tired than others.

Some of those sent uphill were sitting and eating lunch about 200' above the fire, when a wind shift caused the back fire to flare up, change direction and jump the fire line. The flames ignited the area below, traversed by them and rapidly spread upward, below and to their right, completely entrapping them. To try to escape the 25' flames that were moving as fast as a man can run, some CCC firefighters from Crew 2 ran uphill, did not stop and made it. Some tried to escape via the right flank, through the flames. Some climbed trees or large rocks. 7 CCC firefighters and their supervisor died.

Memorial Springs

Memorial Springs Memorial Springs
Memorial Springs Plaque Memorial Springs Plaque

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Maps

Fire was located in the hills of Cameron County PA, about 4 mi SW of Sinnamahoning State Park -- up First Fork, below Pepper Hill; one surviving firefighter that had run through the flames into the black exited to a nearby road where their carrier had been parked, got a ride to Bucktail Vetrans Camp then to Renovo Hospital.

Best Guestimate on Accident Location. If anyone knows better, please let us know.

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • The Cameron County Historical Society Brochure, posted on the Little Museum website: Pepper Hill Fire (140 K pdf)
  • The County Coroner convened an inquisition and District Attorney Edwin Tompkins made a sweeping investigation of the tragedy. There was also a Board of Inquiry convened by the U.S. Army. All three investigations pointed fingers to the staff of the Hunts Run CCC Camp. Today, the mistakes made in this event are still taught by the Pennsylvania Forestry Department during their fire fighting training.
  • Initial Report retyped from original (16 K pdf) | Original (hard to read) historical document (350 K pdf)
  • US Army Reserves Investigation: Interviews of the surviving enrollees and other camp personnel (57 pages, 8MB pdf)
  • WildfireLessons.net has links to the scanned historical investigation documents and old photos from the Cameron County Historical Society, PA organized here by LLC staff: The Pepper Hill Fire of 1938 (1877 K pdf) (nice job on that)
  • Article about the Pepper Hill Staff Ride (Nelson Hass newspaper article, for 70th anniversary 2008) from the LLC (4335 K pdf)

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Media Articles and Reports.

 

October 27, 1938 The Cameron County Press

2008 Newspaper Article "Tears on Pepper Hill"
by Nelson Haas

91 Year Old Survivor Recalls Deadly Pepper Hill Fire 70 Years Later
10/25/2008
By Alex Davis, Endeavor: Link to Media Article

[photo caption] Emporium's Matt Ryan, right, shares a light moment with Pepper Hill fire survivor Andrew Majorsky during the 75th anniversary commemoration at the site last weekend. One of the survivors of a devastating wildfire that claimed the lives of eight men 70 years ago recalled his experiences last weekend in Cameron County.

One of the survivors of a devastating wildfire that claimed the lives of eight men 70 years ago recalled his experiences last weekend in Cameron County.

"There's a lot I don't remember from that fire," said Andrew Majorsky of Latrobe Saturday as he overlooked the site of the fire at Pepper Hill near Sinnemahoning. "I'm glad to have pictures to go by."

Cameron County Historical Society sponsored a twoday program to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

About 30 people turned out to get a glimpse of the Pepper Hill fire site, eat lunch at Sinnemahoning State Park, as well as tour the Hunts Run CCC Camp and the Little Museum in Sterling Run. (more at the link)

~~~~

Sacrifice at Pepper Hill Fire Commemorated, PA S-132
CCC Legacy Journal: Vol. 33 Issue 5 - September / October 2009

By John Eastlake, Life member of ccclegacy.org

This past October was the 70th Anniversary of the Pepper Hill forest fire. The fire occurred on Oct. 19, 1938. Unfortunately, several CCC boys perished plus a Pennsylvania Department of Forests and Water foreman.

The fire was one of a series of arson fires that were set in the very remote and rugged Elk State Forest in Cameron County, about four miles southwest of Sinnernahonign State Park. The CCC boys were from the S-132 Hunts Run camp. (more at the link)

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

 

 

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Contributors to this article: Mellie, Firefox1 for Memorial Springs photo, Mike Wennin for the wreath photo

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