National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Part I – South Canyon Fire, Colorado, 1994 (A Four-Part Series)


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?

Incident Summary:

On July 2, 1994, seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, lightning ignites a Bureau of Land Management fire in piñon-pine and juniper on a ridge at the base of Storm King Mountain. The fire, paralleled by two deep canyons, is initially believed to have “little chance” to spread. The past two days, lightning has started 40 new fires on this BLM District. The entire general area, in a one-year drought, is experiencing low humidities and record-high temperatures. Over the next two days, the South Canyon Fire increases in size. Visible from Interstate 70 and nearby residential areas, the public becomes concerned. Some initial attack resources are assigned. Between July 3-6, the fire grows to approximately 2,000 acres. On July 6, a dry cold front moves into the fire area. As winds and fire activity increases, the fire makes several 100-foot flame-length rapid runs within the existing burn—in dense, highly flammable Gambel oak. Fourteen firefighters perish as they try to outrun the flames. The remaining 35 firefighters survive either by escaping down a deep drainage or by seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters.

July 3 – Summary of Activities:

A triangle with the workds Fuel, Weather, and Topography on each side.Airtankers are a valuable asset in the control of wildland fires, but these aircraft can pose serious threats to the safety of air and ground personnel.

The Grand Junction BLM District is in very high to extreme fire danger. Ninety percent of its firefighting resources are committed to more than 40 new fires started in the previous 2 days. 

A red flag warning is issued for dry lightning. Strong winds hamper the effective use of fire suppression aircraft.

One load—eight—smokejumpers, an air tanker, and lead plane are requested.

An engine crew arrives on scene. Its foreman’s initial size-up informs: fire is inaccessible; two flaming trees visible, low spread potential, steep slopes. Until more resources can be obtained, it is recommended that the fire be observed.

Fire Control Officer requests more South Canyon Fire resources from the Western Slope Fire Coordination Center.

This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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