National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Thirtymile Fire (Washington) – July 10, 2001

This Day in History
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2021


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:

The Chewuch River runs down a deep V canyon with 70% to 100% slopes and little elevation change along the canyon floor. The southwest to northeast orientation of the canyon aligns with afternoon ridge and up-canyon winds. Dead fuel moistures were at historic lows on July 10: 10-hour at 3%, 100-hour at 5%, and 1,000-hour at 10%. Live fuels were generally less than 100%. Ladder fuels were abundant on the canyon floor and riparian fuels were dry enough to support surface fire and torching throughout the night of July 9 and into the morning of July 10. Crown fuels were dense and drought stressed. On this day, the temperature reached 94 °F with a relative humidity (RH) of 8% along the canyon floor.

At 2126 hours, July 9, a fire was reported near the road along the Chewuch River. The fire was about five acres with two spots ahead of it. An engine with three firefighters arrived just after 2300. One engine arrived just before midnight. An Interagency Hot Shot Crew (IHC) was on scene at 0100 after working another fire the previous day and having had only 30 minutes of sleep. The engine departed the fire around 0130. A local Type 2 crew was called up just after midnight. A majority of the crew had only one or two hours of sleep. By 0530, July 10, there were seven spots covering about five to six acres. Two spots were about an acre each.

At 0700 the Type 2 crew gets a briefing at a ranger station prior to heading to the fire and is informed that they will be doing mop-up. They arrive at the fire at 0900. The IHC leaves the fire for rest at 1100. Mid-morning fire intensity increases with more frequent torching and increasingly longer spotting distances. By about noon the crew is experiencing difficulties with the pumps and multiple broken handtools. Just after noon the IC requests additional resources including a helicopter. The IHC returns to the fire around 1400 with less than 3 hours of rest.

The fire has been burning through hoses and spotting over the line. The IC pulls the crew back to the road and accepts the fact that the fire was lost. At 1500 the Type 2 crew is joined by the IHC at the "safety zone" on the west side of the river. The helicopter makes water drops on small spots on the south edge of the fire until having to refuel. The fire had spread up the east canyon walls and soon after had moved back to the canyon floor with spotting on the west wall of the canyon. At 1520, the fire is 50 acres, crowning and going to the ridge. At 1535 the fire is 100 acres.

Two engines are ordered and arrive around 1530 neither checking in with the IC nor receiving a tactical briefing. One engine crew radios for help with a spot. One, then eventually all of the squads of the Type II crew are sent to assist the engines with spots along the road. Minutes later the fire is actively spotting and is burning right up to the east side of the road. Some firefighters quickly drive back down the road to their “safety zone" shielding their faces from the intense heat as they pass the fire. 1603 the Thirtymile Fire is forming its own thunderhead. A call is made to the other firefighters to get everyone out of the area. 1634, as the firefighters attempt to retreat they see a "wall of flames", and quickly turn around and drive up the canyon. 1700 the fire is over 500 acres.

The fire makes a strong up-canyon run. 1724, roaring, ash, and a “fire snowstorm” abruptly overwhelm the area and surprises the crew. Cut off from their only escape route, back down the road, eight firefighters and two civilians deploy on the road and six firefighters on the talus slope. Four firefighters do not survive.

Discussion Points:

  • Local firefighters considered it unusual for green foliage to be burning like it was for this time of year. If you are not familiar with local conditions of a fire you are being dispatched to, what are some quick and effective tools you can use to gain an understanding of that area?
  • Identify and discuss the red flags that pop-up during this 8-hour period. If this were your crew, what would you be doing to identify and mitigate these red flags?
  • Though water was readily available, relatively little was applied to the fire during the night and morning. This was largely due to operational problems with pumps and hoses, as well as delays in availability of a helicopter. In this situation, how would you and your crew adapt your tactics and develop your trigger points?
  • Records indicate that firefighters on the Thirtymile Fire had very little sleep prior to their assignments, and mental fatigue affected situational awareness and decision-making. How can you recognize fatigue in yourself and in your crew/team? Discuss what you will do about it?
  • Four of the six firefighters that deployed on the talus slope did not survive. Refer to Last Resort Survival in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461, discuss the features of an optimal and survivable deployment site. Practice looking for them on PT hikes, when patrolling the fireline, and while preparing prescribed burn units.


Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
10 Standard Firefighting Orders, PMS 110 
18 Watch Out Situations, PMS 118
10 & 18 Poster, PMS 110-18
NWCG Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
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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