National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Part III – 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 fire in piñon-pine and juniper on a ridge at the base of Storm King Mountain. 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. Initial attack resources are assigned. Four days later, on July 6, a dry cold front moves into the fire area. As winds and fire activity increases, the fire makes several rapid runs. Fourteen firefighters perish as they try to outrun the flames.

South Canyon incident map

July 5 – Summary of Activities:

Red flag warnings and very high to extreme fire danger are predicted again today.

A crew of seven firefighters hikes up into the South Canyon Fire at the base of Storm King Mountain. They cut Helispot 1 and begin direct fireline construction downhill along the fire’s edge below this helispot.

The IC orders another district engine crew, one helicopter, and one 20-person hand crew. A load of eight smokejumpers is then substituted for the hand crew.

To support fireline construction, an air tanker retardant drop is requested. After the first load is dropped, due to steep terrain and gusty winds, the IC and pilot agree that more drops would be ineffective.

At 5:30 p.m. the IC and engine crew leave the fire to refurbish equipment. Fifteen minutes later, 8 smokejumpers are dropped at the top of the fire. The IC directs them to work on the fireline from the helispot downhill toward the west drainage.

The Jumper-in-Charge informs the IC that the fire has crossed their fireline and is burning actively. The jumpers begin building fireline on the east side of the ridge.  After sizing-up the current fire, the Jumper-in-Charge orders two Type 1 hand crews. By 10 p.m., the fire has grown 20 acres today. It now covers 50 acres.

Discussion Points:

Downhill fireline construction is hazardous in steep terrain, fast-burning fuels, and rapidly changing weather. Downhill fireline construction should not be attempted unless there is no tactical alternative.

If your fire crew was assigned to construct fireline downhill on Storm King, what would your concerns be? Could you perform this operation safely? (Reference page 1, 6 and 8 in your IRPG for this discussion.)


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

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