The South Canyon Fire: A Remembrance Five Years Later

Robert M. Winston recalls a fire that killed 14 wildland firefighters in 1994 and focuses on the lessons learned to help prevent another tragedy.


It has been five years since the tragic fire event of July 6, 1994, took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain in South Canyon, Glenwood Springs, CO. In the tragedy's wake, wildland firefighting agencies took an introspective look and reexamined all aspects of firefighter...


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It has been five years since the tragic fire event of July 6, 1994, took the lives of 14 wildland firefighters on Storm King Mountain in South Canyon, Glenwood Springs, CO. In the tragedy's wake, wildland firefighting agencies took an introspective look and reexamined all aspects of firefighter safety, training and attitudes towards wildland and structural wildland interzone (SWI) fire suppression. A new emphasis and a heightened awareness have been placed on these firefighting essentials and are an integral component of wildland and SWI fire protection.

This article is a remembrance, a memorial to "The Fourteen" brave young wildland firefighters who made the "Supreme Sacrifice" and "gave it their all to protect the lives, property and environment of people they had never met in a place that they had never seen."

Structural and wildland fire suppression bear a distinct similarity in that its firefighters all too often find themselves precariously poised on the "edge of eternity." They peer into that hostile "chasm" with little trepidation because all firefighters are a brave dedicated bunch strengthened by the confidence attained in training, past firefighting experiences and trust in their personal safety equipment.

There are times, however, when what is routine can suddenly become anything but predictable. It is a grim time when some may fall over the edge and enter that "chasm." It was just such a time on July 6, 1994, when 14 federal wildland firefighters were overrun by a wildfire and perished on Storm King Mountain in South Canyon, Colorado.

What follows is excerpted from the "South Canyon Fire Investigation by the Interagency Review Team."

The Incident

July 2 - The South Canyon Fire was ignited by lightning in the afternoon.

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Photo from the collection of Robert M. Winston
The Prineville, OR, Interagency Hotshot Crew before the South Canyon/Storm King Mountain tragedy. Nearly half of the members of this crew died in the July 6, 1994, fire.

July 3 - The Grand Junction District of Colorado was in very high to extreme fire danger, with 90% of its firefighting resources committed to other fires. Lightning during the last two days ignited 40 new fires, and the district had developed a priority list for initial fire attack. Highest priority was assigned to fires threatening homes, structures and utilities and to fires with the highest potential for rapid spread. A Red Flag Warning had been issued and the high winds hampered the safe, effective use of aircraft for fire suppression.

July 4 - Five new fires were started, two of them in excess of 100 acres. In addition, 31 fires remained out of control. Red Flag Warnings were issued.

July 5 - The morning fire briefing at the Western Slope Fire Coordination Center called for Red Flag Warnings and very high to extreme fire conditions. A Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fire crew of seven walked into the Storm King Mountain/ South Canyon Fire from the east drainage area. This crew cut "Helispot 1," a helicopter landing area, on the ridge above the fire and also began direct fireline construction downhill along the fire's edge below the helispot. The incident commander (IC) ordered another district engine crew, a helicopter and a 20-person wildfire hand crew to the scene. However, eight U.S. Forest Service Smokejumpers were substituted and dispatched.

An air tanker was also requested to support fireline construction. The IC and the air tanker pilot agreed that more retardant drops would be ineffective due to steep terrain and gusty winds. The eight Smokejumpers parachuted into the fire area at 5:45 P.M. The jumper in charge radioed the IC and told him that the fire had crossed the fireline and was actively burning. On this day, the fire grew from 29 acres to 50 acres by 10 P.M.

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Photo by Robert M. Winston
A section of the memorial in Grand Junction, CO, is dedicated to "The Fourteen" wildland firefighters who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain five years ago.
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