Battlement Creek Fire (Colorado) – July 17, 1976
This Day in History is a brief summary of a powerful learning opportunity and is not intended to second guess or be judgmental of decisions and actions. Put yourself in the following situation as if you do not know the outcome. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?
In 1976, Western Colorado was experiencing a severe fire season caused partly by unusual fuel conditions and heavy lightning activity during dry weather. A severe frost in June killed a high percentage of the leaves on Gambel oak trees. After such a frost, these leaves tend to remain on the branches and are considered one of Colorado’s most flammable fuels. Ten-hour fuels were at 3-5% moisture content. A large-scale high-pressure weather pattern sat over western Colorado, allowing for local weather to be influenced by terrain and diurnal winds averaging 10 to 15 mph in the afternoon with higher gusts. The weather was fair and hot with the temperatures at Grand Junction and Rifle reaching into the mid and upper 90. A fire was reported 40 miles northeast of Grand Junction in the Battlement Creek drainage, burning over an elevation range of 6,200 to 8,400 feet on a steep west-facing slope.
Friday, July 16, at 0630, two hotshot crews from the Coconino National Forest in Arizona arrived at the Battlement Creek Fire. This was the first season and seventeenth fire for the newly formed Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew. The strategy for the fire was to prevent western and southern spread. The crews began a major burnout of the catline (dozer line) from an area of rocky bluffs (Point A) at about 1615. They worked downhill along the catline toward the Battlement Creek road at the bottom (Point C), ending about 2030. The fire made an uphill run in oak brush burning out a large portion of the drainage (from the road east to the ridgetop) in about 20 minutes. Two “impressive” fire whirls are observed between 1600 and 1700. The night shift continued the burn out (Point C to D and beyond along the road), but this segment was spotty with considerable unburned fuel remaining. Other night shift crews constructed line along the ridgetop (Point E to G). Based on Friday’s fire behavior, the E-G line was a crucial spot on the fire. At morning briefing, Saturday, July 17, 0700, the Mormon Lake crew was assigned to burn out this section of line.
1100 – Due to a delay with the helicopter, the Mormon Lake crew did not get to the base of the rock bluff (Point E) until 1100. They were instructed to improve and burn out the line from the rocky bluff to the helispot (Point E-G). The burnout squad consisted of the crew boss, squad boss, and two crew members. The rest of the crew was improving the handline down the ridgetop.
At this same time, another crew was burning out in the bottom of the draw (Point C-D). The draw burned readily, uphill toward the ridge and the Mormon Lake crew. Neither crew knew the specific location or assignment of the other.
1400 –When the Mormon Lake crew reached a third of the way from the rock bluff to the upper helispot, there was a noticeable increase in smoke from the draw below (where the other crew had been burning). The crew boss was instructed to speed up the line improvement squad, moving toward the safety zone (Point G), and to narrow down and speed up their burnout on down the ridgeline. They were to join the rest of the crew in the safety zone when the burnout was completed. Upslope winds had increased to 25-35 mph.
1425-1440 – The line improvement squad made it into the safety zone when the flame front hit the ridge. Two hundred yards back, the burnout squad radioed that they were “trapped," their escape blocked by heavy smoke and flames.
1440-1445 – The squad removed their canvas vests to cover their heads and faces, moistened the vests and their clothes with water from their canteens, and laid face down in the mineral soil of the fireline.
1448 – All four firefighters were very badly burned. Three would lose their lives.
The day prior to the burnover, an airtanker crashed during a retardant mission on the Battlement Creek Fire, killing the pilot.
- Discuss how incidents and distractions can affect our judgment and situational awareness.
The crew all wore aluminum hardhats, canvas vests, Nomex shirts, and non-fire-resistant work pants. Fire shelters were not used. Fire shelters may have prevented serious burns and death at this incident. Policy on issuing and carrying shelters had not been established yet. This incident became the catalyst for the mandatory use of fire shelters and fire-resistant clothing.
- Take this opportunity to inspect, repair, or replace your personal protective equipment (PPE), including your fire shelter. Ensure that it protects you as effectively as possible.
Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
10 Standard Firefighting Orders, PMS 110
18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118
10 & 18 Poster, PMS 110-18
NWCG Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center