Staff Ride to the Battlement Creek Fire
The 1976 Battlement Creek Fire was located on Bureau of Land Management lands just outside of Grand Valley (now Parachute), Colorado, on Morrisania Mesa. Battlement Creek is approximately 8 miles long and flows in a northwesterly direction to the Colorado River. The fire burned the east side of Battlement Creek. Elevations on the fire range from 6,200 feet to 8,400 feet. Slope percentage varies from 10 percent above County Road 302 (Battlement Road) to 75 percent in the chute just below the ridgeline.
On June 14th there was an extensive frost in the area which killed more than 50% of the leaves on the Gambel's oak. At the time of the fire, many of the dead leaves were found to be still hanging in the canopy while others had fallen, creating a 1 to 2 inch litter layer. There was a warning issued prior to this fire concerning this extreme fire behavior condition, but the firefighters were not aware of it.
Fuel moistures of the dead leaves in the oak canopy and other fine fuels were estimated to be between 7% and 8% at the time of the fire.
The fire started on July 11th from a lightning storm that went through the area. On July 15th, the fire escaped containment and a Class II Overhead Team (now known as a Type 2 Incident Management Team) was ordered. The Grand Junction District of the Bureau of Land Management was responsible for suppression of the fire. Approximately 13 crews totaling 270 people and approximately 20 overhead were assigned to the fire.
On July 15th, there were 198 fires reported on the daily Situation Report from the Boise Interagency Fire Center (now known as the National Interagency Fire Center [NIFC]). The majority of the fires were in California, Nevada, and Utah. During this time, the Forest Service was working with the Bureau of Land Management to establish a national plan to exchange and utilize manpower and equipment.
On Friday, July 16th, a B-26 air tanker crashed on a retardant dropping mission on the Battlement Creek Fire. The accident occurred at 0856 hrs, approximately 1 mile south of the fire. The pilot was killed.
On Saturday, July 17th, three firefighters were killed and a fourth was severely burned during a burnover while working on the Battlement Creek Fire. All victims were members of the Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew, a trained 20-person Forest Service fire crew stationed on the Coconino National Forest in Arizona.
The Battlement Creek Fire resulted in some substantial changes in federal wildland fire management. This incident was the catalyst for the mandatory use of fire shelters and flame resistant clothing. It also demonstrated the need for closer interagency coordination between federal, state, and local wildland fire agencies.
The Battlement Creek Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- David Blair - Grand Valley Fire Protection District - Parachute, Colorado
- Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
- Chris Davidson - Grand Valley Fire Protection District - Parachute, Colorado
- Tim Foley - Bureau of Land Management - Grand Junction, Colorado
- Aaron Graeser - U.S. Forest Service - Coconino National Forest
- Shawna Legarza - U.S. Forest Service - San Juan National Forest
- Randy Skelton - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
- Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
Special thanks to the citizens of the Morrisania Mesa and Parachute communities.
Google Earth fly-around animation of Battlement Creek area.
Documents and Publications
*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
Local Contact Information:
Bureau of Land Management
Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit
2774 Landing View Lane
Grand Junction, CO 81506
Phone (970) 257-4800
Grand Valley Fire Protection District
0124 Stone Quarry Road
P.O. Box 295
Parachute, CO 81635
Phone (970) 285-9119
From Stand 1, you can look up at the crash site of air tanker T56. From this location, you can see the road to the Rulison blast site. This was the site of a 43-kilo ton atomic blast 8,426 feet below the surface, which was conducted as part of the Operation Plowshare project on September 10, 1969. The blast was part of a program to convert the government's 27 nuclear programs into one of various peacetime uses of atomic power. At the time of the fire, there were still large amounts of equipment and two aboveground storage tanks on site. Each tank contained explosive vapors and low-level radioactive materials. Additionally, the well had been plugged at the top and bottom but had not yet been cemented.
T56 was a converted military B-26, adapted to fire suppression activities. It was flown from Denver to Grand Junction on July 15, 1976, and assigned to work with two other air tankers on the Battlement Creek Fire. On Friday morning, July 16, 1976, all three planes were assigned to continue working on the Battlement Creek Fire. The first plane arrived to the fire at approximately 0735. T56 was the third plane to arrive at about 0840. T56 circled the fire as the lead plane flew the desired flight path. Both the lead plane and T56 flew south into the large bowl. It was determined that T56 never completed its turn prior to impacting the ridge. The pilot did jettison the retardant load just prior to impact.
At 0855, pilot Donald Goodman of Missoula, Montana, was killed.
As a result of the impact, a fire was started and involved approximately 1 acre of scrub oak. The Line Boss and the Sawtooth Interregional Crew worked the resulting fire.
Tanker operations were halted after the accident and not resumed until the following day.
The main fire camp was located up toward the flag and down among the aspens. There were several hotshot and Snake River Valley crews that had just come off the July 15th night shift that must have been filtering into camp at the time of this accident.
View looking upslope from Stand 1. The Memorial Flag is located to the left and above the band of bare shale at the top of the ridge. This area is on private property and there is no public access to the site.
Memorial presentation photo presented to Donald Goodman's family at the July 21, 2001, memorial service. The flag and plaque serve as the location marker for the impact site. The plane's control levers are entwined in the brush at the base of the flagpole.
Memorial placed at the Grand Junction Interagency Air Center, Walker Field Airport, Grand Junction, Colorado.
Close-up of memorial.
Stand 2 is located at the BLM land ownership boundary. The mixed mountain shrub fuel type you see is representative of what the area looked like in 1976. The dominate brush was Gambel's oak, mountain mahogany, serviceberry, and snowberry. The Gambel's oak was 10 to 12 feet tall.
The remnant dozer line you see was constructed on Friday, July 16th, as part of the overall strategy to impede the fire's southerly progress and protect the Rulison blast site. The dozer operations were completed around 1600. At this time, fire activity in the bowl to the north (16th Bowl) was extreme. The fire made a run from Battlement Creek Road to the ridgeline, generating two large fire whirls.
The Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew and Happy Jack Hotshot Crew began burning out the dozer line around 1615 and reached the road about 2030. The burnout was 60 feet wide with some deeper pockets and continued downhill. There were no spot fires south of the line.
As night fell, crews attempted to continue the firing along the road to the north; it did not carry as well. The burnout on the road was primarily a ground fire and left a considerable amount of unburned fuel in the Gambel's oak. Both crews reached fire camp around 0100 to get some sleep prior to the morning briefing to be held a few hours later.
Looking upslope from the cattle guard. Note how much of the old dozer line is still visible.
View of the fatality sites, 17th bowl, saddle, and ridgeline from the dozer line. Note the steepness of the terrain across the face of the bowl. The bare area in the center was caused by erosion after the fire.
Stand 3 is located up the ridge from a prominent juniper tree in between the 16th and 17th Bowls. The two bowls have been named as to reference the fire behavior which occurred on those days in each bowl. The bowl to the north is referred to as the 16th Bowl and the bowl to the south is referred to as the 17th Bowl.
Fire behavior in the 16th Bowl was extreme, characterized by intense surface and crown fire, hooking uphill runs, and fire whirls late in the day. Most of the 16th Bowl was burned by night fall.
View looking north into the base of the 16th Bowl. County Road 302 can be seen along the bottom of the slope. In the distance is Morrisania Mesa and the community of Parachute, Colorado.
Looking east from Stand 3, up the 16th Bowl. Re-growth vegetation is 3-4 feet high in most places, with some unburned pockets still almost 10 feet high. Vegetation is primarily a mix of Gambel's oak, mountain mahogany, and serviceberry.
From Stand 4, you can see the bowl to the south which is referred to as the 17th Bowl. You can also see the flagpole at the site of the T56 crash on the southern-most horizon ridge.
View from the Observation Point looking up towards the cliffs at the top of the draw. The north draw is in the foreground and the south draw is in the background. The Ponderosa Pine trees in the center of the photo are located on a small spur ridge which was spared during the July 17th blowup. The area that has slid below the cliff face occurred after the fire and was due to erosion. The Mormon Lake Hotshots' fatality site is near the top left of this photo.
Directly up this spur ridge, just below the main north-south ridge, are the Mormon Lake Hotshot fatality sites (look for the flagpole and drip torch memorials).
From Stand 4, you can see the three key control lines which were used as part of the suppression strategy:
- The road which is downhill to the west.
- The dozer line which is located directly south on the southern ridge of the 17th Bowl.
- The handline which was located uphill along the main ridge from the rock outcropping to the helispot.
Strategy and tactics for July 17th were to work on the critical spot on the ridgeline to the southeast. The Mormon Lake Hotshots were assigned to this ridgeline and would be flown in by helicopter. The Happy Jack Hotshots were assigned to the burned out section of the south dozer line and Battlement Creek Road with instructions to continue burning out inside of Friday's blackline and also mopup along the outer edge of the burn. Other crews were assigned to secure completed sections of the fire, which were now in the mopup stage.
Looking downslope from the Observation Point, portions of the old fireline can be seen on the top of the ridge between the 16th and 17th Bowl; (right side of photo). County Road 302 is visible at the bottom of the drainage. Jack's Pocket is in the next drainage west. This was the furthest east area that was burned during the Battlement Mesa Fire of 1987. That fire was 3,600 acres in size and was started by children playing with a magnifying glass.
Dozer line as seen from the Observation Point.
At the morning briefing on July 17th, the Mormon Lake Hotshots were assigned to improve the line on top, the ridge which was previously worked by the night shift. Line construction was just to the lee side of the slope. Fire shelters were not mandatory equipment for BLM personnel at the time of the fire. The Mormon Lake Hotshots had fire shelters but left them in camp that morning because of their weight - a common practice at the time.
The Mormon Lake Hotshots arrived at the helibase at 0730; due to a series of other priorities, they never reached the upper helispot until about 1100. At this time they began improving the line from the rock bluff back down to the upper helispot.
From their position along the top of the ridge, Mormon Lake Hotshot crewmembers would have seen residual smoke in the 16th Bowl and few smokes along the dozer line from the burnout operation on July 16th.
Fire activity was established in the bottom of the 17th Bowl from the Happy Jack Hotshots' burnout operation. The 17th Bowl mirrors the 16th Bowl in fuel and topography. Suppression actions on July 17th were based on the previous days' fire behavior in the 16th Bowl.
Radios at the time were typically single-channel or had only a few channels. Radios had "crystals" in them and could not be field programmed like today. They were also very expensive and only issued to key personnel. Crew Boss Tony Czak had to carry two radios: one to talk to his crew and a second to talk to overhead.
From the upper helispot looking south, up the slope, evidence of the old fireline can be seen, tying the lee side of the slope to the cliff face. Note the vegetation change of the northeast aspect slopes to large thick stands of aspen.
To the east of the upper helispot, you can see the edge of the Roan Plateau, and in the far distance, the Flat Tops Wilderness and Storm King Mountain. Storm King Mountain was the site of the fatalities which occurred during the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in 1994.
At approximately 1315, the Happy Jack Hotshots had completed the lower burnout along the road. Unbeknownst to the Mormon Lake Hotshots, the fire was starting to work its way up into the 17th Bowl.
At about 1330, the Mormon Lake burnout crew was to burn out a 60 to 80 foot strip along the improved line on the main ridge. The burnout progressed slowly and was difficult to keep burning. The Crew Boss sent a burnout squad up the ridge to watch for spot fires. This left Crew Boss Tony Czak, Squad Boss John Gibson, and crewmembers Stephen Furey and Scott Nelson to finish the burn.
At 1400, the burn squad encountered dense oak brush which produced erratic fire behavior. During this same time period, the fire behavior in the 17th Bowl was increasing. Steepness of the slope ranged from 10% at the bottom near the road to 75% near the ridgeline.
At this time, the Sector Boss called Czak to move the Mormon Lake line improvement crew to the safety zone because of incoming air tankers. The crew moved off the ridgeline to the safety zone. The conditions became smokey. The two Squad Bosses had only the crew radio frequency. When the order to leave was made by the Sector Boss, only Czak heard it and had to relay the message to the Squad Bosses. The Sector Boss heard the report that all had made it to the safety zone and assumed that included the members of the burnout squad.
However, the Mormon Lake burnout squad was separated from the rest of the crew by 100 to 200 yards, with a wall of fire between them. The time was between 1425 and 1430. Unable to reach the safety zone, Crew Boss Czak radioed his Squad Boss who was in the safety zone and told him that they were trapped and unable to make it to the safety zone. Czak also radioed the Sector Boss with the same information and told him that the burnout squad would be moving back up the ridgeline toward the rock bluff. The time was now between 1430 and 1435.
At approximately 1440, the burnout squad was unable to go any further up the slope toward the rock bluff. After being given orders by the Crew Boss, the crew took off their canvas vests, wet down their vests, shirts and trousers and laid down on the fireline. At approximately 1440-1445, the fire roared over the burnout squad. During the burn over, at approximately 1448, crewmember Scott Nelson got up and ran downhill. Shortly after Nelson got up, Crew Boss Tony Czak got up and ran down the ridgeline in the direction of the safety zone and died approximately 1,000 feet away. At 1510, the Sector Boss arrived at the original burnover site and found Gibson and Furey still alive. Shortly after that, Stephen Furey passed away. John Gibson was airlifted to St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction and then on to a burn center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gibson survived the burnovers.
In the foreground is the fireline where the four firefighters laid while the fire roared over the top of them.
This was a rock cairn that was discovered while preparing for the 2001 memorial. This was the site where Tony Czak's body was found.
Tony Czak's memorial torch and presentation photo presented to his family during the July 21, 2001, memorial service.
Scott Nelson's memorial torch and presentation photo. Nelson's family was unable to attend the memorial service.
Steve Furey's memorial torch and presentation photo presented to his family during the July 21, 2001, memorial service.
The Mormon Lake Crew's first season photo taken early in the 1976 fire season.
During the winter of 1997, the Parachute/Battlement Mesa Volunteer Fire Department decided to develop a memorial for those killed during the Battlement Creek Fire. The project started by placing memorial markers at the locations where the pilot and firefighters died. Not knowing whether the people who died were religious, it was decided that drip torch cans would make the perfect markers for those that died while performing the burnout operation and a simple flagpole and plaque at the location of the T56 air tanker crash would be appropriate. A flagpole was also erected at the site of the burnover to mark the site and make the location more visible to those who could only view the area from the county road below.
During the summer of 2000, it was decided to have a formal memorial placed where more people could learn what happened during the summer of 1976. Working with the State of Colorado Department of Transportation and the town of Parachute, permission was granted to erect the memorial at the Parachute Rest Area off Interstate 70. Working with a company in Arizona, the memorial sign board was created and built using both words and drawings. An area artist developed the concept of the memorial using plants native to the area of the burn with a snag from the fire area serving as the centerpiece. Tools were placed at the memorial similar to what would have been used at the time. The propeller hub from T56 that was recovered at the base of the impact slope in dense brush was also placed at the memorial site.
Battlement Creek Fire Memorial in the Parachute, Colorado, Interstate 70 rest area. The actual fatality site is in the distant background.
The families of those who were killed were contacted early into the project. They helped with information regarding their loved ones. Three families were able to attend the memorial; two of the three families were escorted up to the actual sites. With this memorial, it is hoped that those who were killed on those two days will never be forgotten. For years to come it will serve as a reminder to those that visit this memorial to be ever vigilant in their training and watchful in their situational awareness as firefighters continue to fight wildland fires into the future.