The South Canyon Fire: A Remembrance Five Years Later

July 1, 1999
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 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.

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.

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."

After viewing the memorial, we proceeded to and hiked up to the fire site on Storm King Mountain. They had been there before; I had not. The charred remains of trees dotted the steep landscape. Yet, fire brings renewal and Storm King Mountain was green with new vegetation sprouting up from the ashes left two years earlier by the fire.

Then I viewed the crosses that marked the locations where each one of "The Fourteen" was found. I thought, "Why were they here two years ago? What good did it do? What a waste of 14 young firefighters' lives!" I felt a sense of loss, anger and sadness. The firefighters I was with were deeply moved as well.

Annual statistics inform us that too many structural and wildland firefighters are injured or die in the line of duty while operating at wildland and SWI fires. In the first few months of 1999, four structural firefighters paid the "Supreme Sacrifice" while operating at wildfires.

The first fatality occurred a short distance from our own National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD. The next two fatalities occurred in Kentucky. And on April 8, a deputy fire chief from Russell, MA, died while operating at a 1,200-acre SWI fire on a day when a Red Flag Warning was issued for the state.

Wildland firefighting agencies learned some hard lessons from the Storm King Mountain/South Canyon fire tragedy. All of those agencies have reviewed their firefighting and safety operational procedures. Some changes have occurred not only in operations, but in a renewed awareness about the basics of fireground safety and in attitudinal changes in the individual firefighter. They have not forgotten "The Fourteen" brave young men and women wildland firefighters who "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."

In Remembrance Of "The Fourteen"

Prineville, OR Interagency Hotshot Crew

Kathi Beck
Tami Bickett
Scott Blecha
Levi Brinkley
Doug Dunbar
Terri Hagen
Bonnie Holtby
Rob Johnson
Jon Kelso

Helitack Crew

Robert Browning
Richard Tyler

USFS Smokejumpers

Don Mackey
Roger Roth
James Trash

About the Author

Robert Winston

Robert M. Winston served as the fire chief for the Pickens County, GA, Fire & Rescue Department, and was a former Boston district fire chief. He is a current member of the Fannin County, GA, Fire & Rescue Department and is an honorary member of the Waterford, VT, Fire Department. He wrote the Wildland/Urban Interface column for Firehouse for many years.

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