2022 WOR Day 6: South Canyon Fire (Colorado) – July 6, 1994
Perspective by the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC)
Today’s topic is dedicated to all fallen firefighters.
Lightning ignites a fire in piñon/juniper on a ridge at the base of Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, CO. The area has experienced drought conditions, low humidity, and record-high temperatures. Over the next two days, the South Canyon Fire increases in size and initial attack resources are assigned. Four days later, on July 6, a dry cold front moves into the fire area. The crews on Storm King Mountain do not receive the Red Flag Warning. At 1600, the fire blows up and makes several rapid runs. Forty mile per hour winds push the blowup to the ridge in two minutes. Fourteen firefighters perish as they try to outrun the flames.
Since 2003, the Redding IHC’s mission and emphasis has evolved to a small unit leadership development approach with staff rides becoming an integral part of the crew’s curriculum. The crew culminates an intense, six-week training program by participating in the South Canyon staff ride. “As we climbed, periodically stopping to discuss events as they had unfolded back in 1994, we recognized logistical dilemmas. We proposed alternative tactics that could have been used. And with each discussion, we began to see and understand how this tragic chain-of-events unfolded.” – Redding IHC crew member
The South Canyon staff ride started as a smaller event, with just the crew and a few other participants. Since then, other IHCs and 20 to 25 additional participants from different agencies and backgrounds attend the staff ride annually.
Over the years many of the survivors of the incident have been invited to attend the staff ride and share their on-the-ground experiences from the events that transpired that day. Their presence has made a memorable impact on the participants. They all add insight that only someone who was on scene at the time could provide and have been extremely open to questions asked by the participants. Other subject matter experts have contributed to the staff rides over the years and brought insights on dealing with a tragedy at the home unit, the fire behavior, and more.
“Our staff ride’s secondary benefits include the emotional impact, reinforcement of pride in the profession, and strengthening of crew cohesion. Sharing the lessons of an emotional experience like South Canyon bonds a crew together. It reminds and reinforces that we do a dangerous job and without each member of the crew working together, it can lead to disastrous results. Every crew member now realizes that he or she is not only responsible for themselves, but that their actions can also affect everyone around them.” – Redding Hotshot Crew’s May 2003 South Canyon Fire Staff Ride Report.
After the staff ride is complete, Redding IHC leadership tasks the crew members with writing an essay on what the South Canyon staff ride meant to them. Here are a few of the comments received:
- “I came away realizing the importance of situational awareness and LCES. I now find myself more alert and aware of my surroundings in the fire environment.”
- “I know the lessons that were learned through the numerous hours of studying, countless discussions, and the physical visit to the site will benefit me through the rest of my fire career.”
- “Without blame and any previous biases about what we might have thought happened here, I realized that this training probably had the most impact on me than any other training I have ever received.”
- “I have never had any training that relayed messages as vividly as this did. I have never had training that left me both excited about what I learned – as well as awestruck by what I learned.”
- “This experience is something that cannot be replicated or performed in a lecture or a classroom with similar long-lasting results.”
“There was nothing in the books that could have completely prepared them for this experience. No picture can show how close 21 seconds to safety actually is (121 feet). Or how far Tyler and Browning, actually ran (1,841 feet) trying to find a way out. The frustration of being so close cannot be fully expressed. The feeling from all staff ride participants was that this is a powerful and positive learning experience.” – Redding Hotshot Crew’s May 2003 South Canyon Fire Staff Ride Report
The crew will continue to make this staff ride the culmination of their training program as the benefits, experience, and knowledge gained are extremely beneficial to the development of our future leaders in wildland fire.
Storm King 14:
Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Douglas Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson,
Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, Jim Thrash, Robert Browning, Jr., and Richard Tyler.
“Stepping on the ground of the South Canyon Fire was without a doubt the most beneficial training and learning experience of my fire career. It is our responsibility to study and learn the lessons from this event.”
– Staff ride participant
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