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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July 6 - Thirty-six fires were burning in the district. By 3 P.M., surface winds shifted to the northwest at 15 to 25 mph and gusted to 30 to 35 mph with the passage of a cold front.

At 1 P.M., a flare-up on the west flank of the fire forced a group of Smokejumpers to momentarily retreat up the fireline toward the top of the ridge. Several of them discussed their concerns about the safety of building the fireline. At 3:20 P.M., a dry cold front with strong winds moved into the fire area. Twenty-five minutes later, the fire made several rapid runs with 100-foot flame lengths. A short time later, helicopter water drops were called for. At this point, fire activity was so intense that water drops were not effective.

At 4 P.M., the fire "blew up." It crossed the west drainage and a wall of flames raced up the opposite ridge. A Smokejumper with a good view of the fire reported to the jumper in charge that it was "rolling." The fire pushed up the west side of the drainage (hill) up the canyon. At 4:11 P.M., the IC radioed dispatch to report that he was losing the fire and needed air tankers. At 4:20 P.M., the air tanker was dispatched.

At about 4:15 P.M., the fire was observed sending spot fires below the crew walking out of the fireline to a ridge. As the fire raced up the slope, it was influenced by a 40-mph wind. During the fire's run, its speed was estimated at increasing from 3 to 11 mph.

It was during this critical time period that the fire crews were overrun by fire and perished.

Quotes From The Scene

"It appeared to me that the crew was unaware of what was behind them as they were walking at a slow pace with tools in hand. There was a slight ridge behind the crew, which obscured our view of the bottom of the fire. The fire 'roared' behind the ridge, and that was the first indication of how bad it had gotten...The fire storm literally exploded behind the ridge with about 100 foot flame heights. At this point, we decided to run...As we neared the crest, of the ridge the heat was intense. As we dove over the ridge top, 200-foot-high flames blasted over us. The last Smokejumper over the ridge was knocked down by the force of the heat and flames."

"The fire made a run in the crowns (tops) of the trees up the hill...We were impressed with the 100-foot flames and the radiant heat we were feeling even though the fire was 250-300 yards away. The fire would travel 150 yards in just 15 seconds."

"When we were in our fire shelters, the fire made three runs at us. Inside the shelters the temperature went up to at least 110 degrees. During the hottest run, there were glowing fire brands blowing into the shelters."

Critical Contributing Factors

  • Fuels - The primary fuels burning on July 3, 4 and 5 were pinyon-juniper, gambel oak and cured out grasses.
  • Weather - No weather observations were taken at the fire site and no one on-site knew that a Red Flag Warning had been issued. (Accurate weather predictions are critically important to safe wildland fire suppression operations.)
  • Topography - The area was very steep and rugged with 50% to 100% slopes. Elevations were 5,980 to 7,000 feet.
  • Drought conditions - Colorado's West Slope was in extreme drought and the area of the fire had experienced eight months of below-normal precipitation. The burning index in early July was at its highest level in 21 years of records.
  • Winds - The winds were gusting up to 45 mph at the time of fire blowup and caused difficulty for firefighters trying to get into their fire shelters.
  • Visibility - Firefighters could not see all of the active fire for several reasons.
  • Standard operating procedures - Eight of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were compromised and 12 of the 18 Watch Out Situations were not recognized or proper actions were not taken. Also, the out-of-state fire crews were not familiar with the area.

It was Aug. 4, 1996, and I had given one of my SWI fire training presentations to firefighters at the Cherryvale (Boulder, CO) Fire Department. Some of these firefighters invited me to go with them to the wildland firefighters' memorial in Glenwood Springs. This beautiful memorial is dedicated to "The Fourteen."