Sundance Fire - September 1

This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2020


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 what the outcome will be. What are the conditions? What are you thinking? What are YOU doing?

Incident Summary:

The Sundance Fire is remembered for its extreme fire behavior and on September 1, 1967 a crown fire, in heavy timber, pushed this 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, with the last wetting rain in June, and fire danger was classified as extreme. Fuels in this mountainous area were mostly comprised of timber, but also included areas of logging slash. One fire that ignited near the west side of the summit of Sundance Mountain spread relatively slowly at the outset, growing to only 35 acres by August 23. On August 29-30, this Sundance 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 that morning called for scattered afternoon and evening thunderstorms, temperatures down 5 degrees, humidity up 5%, and south-southwest winds at 12-18 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 TFLD or STEQ now) were deployed on that opposite 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 4 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 on September 1, the Sundance Fire experienced winds of 30 to 50 mph from early afternoon into the night. In the 9 hour period from 1400 to 2300, the fire increased by 50,000 acres and advanced 16 miles to the NE, with long-range spotting up to 10 miles.

Discussion Points:

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 LCES throughout the day.

  • In the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461, review the “Human Factor Barriers to Situation Awareness” (white section) and discuss this in relation to the Sundance Fire.


Additional Resources

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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