Sundance Fire (Idaho) – September 1, 1967
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?
The Sundance Fire is remembered for its extreme fire behavior. A crown fire, in heavy timber, pushed the fire 16 miles in a single burning period. Two firefighters perished in the blowup event.
Factors Influencing Fire Behavior: Lightning started several fires in mid-August of 1967 in the Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho. The area was in moderate drought conditions. The last wetting rain was in June, and fire danger was classified as extreme. Fuels in this mountainous area were mostly comprised of timber with areas of logging slash. One fire, the Sundance Fire, ignited near the west side of Sundance Mountain summit; it spread relatively slowly at the outset, growing to only 35 acres by August 23. On August 29 and 30, the fire made a major downhill run towards Priest Lake, pushed by strong northeast winds. By August 31, the fire was at 4,000 acres. On September 1, a dry cold front with very strong southwest winds moved over the fire area. The fire weather forecast issued at 0800 called for scattered afternoon and evening thunderstorms, temperatures down five degrees, humidity up 5%, and south-southwest winds at 12 to 18 mph.
Human Factors and Fire Operations: In response to the fire’s growth, a US Forest Service fire management team was ordered, and it assumed command of the incident at 1000 on September 1. Much of the focus was on the fire’s movement to the west, as there was no imminent threat perceived of the fire spreading to the east and over the Selkirk Divide. Indeed, earlier that morning, a dozer with operator and Sector Boss (similar to a Task Force Leader [TFLD]or Strike Team Leader Heavy Equipment [STEQ] in today’s organization) were deployed on that side of the Divide, several miles northeast of the fire. Around 1100, they were briefed by a supervisor on work objectives and escape routes. The dozer was assigned to open up roads in the McCormick Creek drainage, starting near the Pack River and moving southwest and up canyon, towards the Selkirk Divide. Fault Lake, their designated safety zone, was four miles and 3,000 vertical feet further up the canyon, and work was to progress toward the safety zone. Due to limited supplies and equipment, the Sector Boss had neither a vehicle nor a two-way radio. The dozer operator had a knee injury that hampered his mobility.
The Blowup: On September 1, starting at 1300 with the onset of strong southwest winds, the Sundance Fire became very active, making a significant run up the Soldier Creek drainage, which is aligned mostly in a west to east direction, to the Selkirk Divide. Between 1400 and 1600, the fire crossed east over the Selkirk Divide and burned downslope through the southwest-to-northeast aligned McCormick Creek Canyon and then into the Pack River drainage, where the dozer had worked its way to within ¼ mile of Fault Lake. At 1600, the fire overran the dozer operator and Sector Boss, killing both. During this blowup event, the Sundance Fire experienced winds of 30 to 50 mph from early afternoon into the night. In the nine-hour period from 1400 to 2300, the fire increased by 50,000 acres and advanced 16 miles to the northeast, with long-range spotting up to 10 miles.
Prior to the blowup, there were signals of escalating risk. Discuss the following:
- Given the predicted weather, extreme fire danger, and other factors, what are your concerns?
- The dozer operator was partially handicapped due to an injured knee. How would you handle an injury that limits your physical ability or that of a coworker?
- How did the alignment of general winds with major canyons and drainages affect fire behavior?
- The Sundance Fire was not predicted to spread into McCormick Creek. Once the fire advanced to the east side of the Divide, what actions would you take?
- Given similar circumstances, discuss how you and your crew could apply Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES) throughout the day.
- In the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461, review Human Factor Barriers to Situation Awareness section (white) and discuss this in relation to the Sundance Fire.
- 10 & 18 Poster, PMS 110-18
- 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, PMS 110
- 18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118
- Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
- NWCG Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
- NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
- RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
- Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center
Have an idea or feedback?
Share it with the NWCG 6MFS Subcommittee.