National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Common Denominators of Fire Behavior On Tragedy Fires

Weather - Fire Behavior
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Feb 2021


Use the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461, to review and discuss the five major common denominators of fire behavior on fatal and near-fatal fires. These common denominators have been identified through studies of tragedy fires. It is important for firefighters to readily recognize them to prevent future tragedies. 

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire. A firefighter looks at his watch, which reads 2 PM, while a fire actively grows in steep terrain and heavy timber.

3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

Fire managers make decisions throughout the day on how to suppress fires and best use resources while protecting life and property. This Standard Firefighting Order depicts a firefighter observing increased fire behavior during a time of day when temperatures are high and relative humidity is low.

Read about all 10 Standard Firefighting Orders.

Such fires often occur:

  1. On relatively small fires or deceptively quiet areas of large fires.
  2. In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush.
  3. When there is an unexpected shift in wind direction or in wind speed.
  4. When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill.
  5. Critical burn period between 1400 and 1700.

Alignment of topography and wind during the critical burning period should be considered a trigger point to reevaluate tactics.

Blowup to burnover conditions generally occur in less than 60 minutes and can be as little as 5 minutes.


The time of Blow up shows the hour at which tragic fires occurred pointing to a watch on left.



A tactical pause may be prudent around 1400 for reevaluating your situational awareness of topography, fuels, and weather.

It can be used as an opportunity to remember that this is the beginning of a dangerous part of the day for fighting fires and increased caution is in order.


Additional Resources

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


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