National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Part II – 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, Colo., 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 4 – Summary of Activities:

Today this BLM District has five new fire starts.

Two exceed 100 acres. In addition, 31 existing fires remain uncontrolled.

Across the district, fire danger continues to be high to extreme. More lightning is forecast for this evening. Red flag warnings have been issued.

For this area’s current intense, multiple fire load, radio communication is inadequate. It is recognized that this could pose a problem for the safe and effective use of aircraft.

Due to concerns voiced from Glenwood Springs residents, the South Canyon Fire—burning up on Storm King Mountain—receives a higher priority for receiving firefighting resources.

At 6:30 p.m. an Incident Commander, BLM engine crew, and Forest Service firefighters meet at the bottom of the mountain down beneath the fire.

Due to the approaching darkness and steep terrain, the decision is made to hike up to attack the fire the next morning.

Later that evening, an aerial observer reports: The fire is in steep and inaccessible terrain. It is actively burning in all directions. The area is too steep for crews. It has few, if any, escape routes. Helicopters with buckets would be very effective.

From noon to 10 p.m. the fire grows from 3 to 11 acres.

Discussion Points:

If your fire crew was assigned to hike up to the fire on Storm King Mountain, how would you:

  • Address the inadequate radio communications for ground and aviation resources.
  • Appropriately mitigate an unacceptable level of risk. (Reference page 1 in your IRPG for this discussion.)
  • Determine when and how to refuse risk. (Reference pages 17-18 in your IRPG for this discussion.)

What would you be thinking about as a Crew Boss, Squad Boss, or Firefighter?


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

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