Part IV – South Canyon Fire, Colorado, 1994 (Last of 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?
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.
July 6 – Summary of Activities:
A total of 36 fires are now burning on this BLM District. During the night, due to the hazards of rolling rocks, the smokejumpers abandon their line construction on the South Canyon Fire up on Storm King Mountain. The fire continues to flare-up throughout the night. A cold front pushing 30-35 mph winds is predicted to occur by 3 p.m. today. A red flag warning has been issued for these frontal winds.
0430: The 11 firefighters from yesterday return and begin their almost 4-hour hike up the east drainage to the fire—where they clear Helispot 2.
0845: The day’s tactical plan calls for improving the fireline on the ridge between helispots 1 and 2. The jumpers and a newly ordered hotshot crew will construct hand line along the fire’s edge on its western flank.
0930: The IC and Jumper-in-Charge take a helicopter recon flight. The Jumper-in-Charge and a jumper on ground discuss lack of safety areas on the fire. It is decided to continue with the original suppression plan. At 10:30 a.m., 8 more smoke jumpers land at the fire. They are assigned to reinforce line building on the west flank. By 11 a.m., the hotshot crew arrives at the helibase to be shuttled up to the fire.
1200: Winds increase—with gusts up to 30 mph. 12:30 p.m.: The hotshot crew Superintendent and 9 of his crew arrive at Helispot 2. The IC, Jumper-in-Charge, and hotshot Superintendent agree to send these 9 hotshots down the west flank to reinforce the jumpers.
1300: A flare-up on the west flank forces some of the jumpers to retreat up the fireline toward the top of the ridge. They discuss safety concerns about building this fireline. After a helicopter water drop, they move back down the hill and continue building fireline.
1500: The remaining 10 hotshots arrive at Helispot 2 to widen hand line and put out spot fires along the ridge. 20 minutes later, the predicted cold front moves into the area. Strong winds immediately increase the fire activity. Within 45 minutes, water drops are no longer effective. The fire makes rapid runs with 100-foot flame lengths. In response, firefighters start walking back up the fireline.
1600: The fire blows up. It crosses the drainage and runs up the ridge. A spot fire is observed on the east side of the drainage below a retreating crew. 40 mph winds push the blow-up to the ridge in 2 minutes.
Fourteen firefighters who try to outrun the flames perish:
Kathi Beck, Tami Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, James Thrash, and Richard Tyler.
A primary objective of every operational fire plan is to keep firefighters out of entrapment situations.
- Discuss how the basics of LCES can help prevent getting into an entrapment situation. (Reference page 6 in your IRPG for this discussion.)
- One recommendation from the South Canyon fire review was that every firefighter should carry a radio. Discuss how radios can be used to increase situational awareness.
- Explain why experience alone isn’t enough to protect you in an entrapment situation such as the one that took firefighters’ lives on the South Canyon Fire.
What are some tell-tale signs that your work environment is becoming increasingly hazardous?
Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
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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