Staff Ride to the South Canyon Fire
On July 6, 1994, the South Canyon Fire caused the death of 14 firefighters, 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
On July 2nd and 3rd, dry lightning storms ignited 40 new fires in the Grand Junction District, including the South Canyon Fire. The District set priorities for initial attack with the highest priority given to fires threatening life, residences, structures, utilities, and fires with the greatest potential for spread. All firefighting resources on the Grand Junction District were committed to the highest priority fires; the South Canyon Fire was not one of the highest. On July 4th, there was a shortage of resources for initial attack throughout the western slope of Colorado.
Starting on July 5th initial attack and extended attack resources were assigned to the South Canyon Fire as they became available. During the first few days, the fire spread by backing downhill, on July 6th the winds and fire activity began to increase. At 1520. on July 6th a dry cold front moved across the fire area. At 1600 the fire crossed the bottom of the West Drainage. It soon spotted back across the drainage to the east side beneath the firefighters and moved onto steep slopes and into dense, highly flammable drought-stressed Gambel Oak brush. Within seconds a wall of flame raced up the hill toward the firefighters on the west flank fireline. Failing to outrun encroaching flames, 12 firefighters perished near the west flank fireline 240 feet below the ridge. Two helitack crew members on the top of the ridge also died when they tried to escape the fire to the northwest. The remaining 35 firefighters on the South Canyon Fire survived by escaping down the East Drainage or by deploying their fire shelters at another location.
The follow-up actions to the South Canyon Fire led to higher training standards, an increased emphasis on weather information and fire danger recognition, the study of human factors in wildland firefighting, and interagency standards for fire operations.
The South Canyon Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
- Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- Chris Farinetti - Bureau of Land Management/USFS - Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit
- Robert Holt - U.S. Forest Service - Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew
- Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
- Shawna Legarza - U.S. Forest Service - San Juan National Forest
- Todd Richardson - Bureau of Land Management/USFS - Montrose Interagency Fire Management Unit
- Randy Skelton - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
- Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
Special thanks to:
- Kim Bang - Bureau of Land Management - Colorado State Office Training Specialist
- Eric Carlson - Lt. Col. U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
- Linde Gardner - Bureau of Land Management - Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit
- Gary Helming - Bureau of Land Management - Colorado State Office Assistant Training Specialist
- Eric Hipke - Bureau of Land Management - Boise Smokejumpers
- Ron Marley - Shasta College Fire Science Program
- Tony Petrilli - U.S. Forest Service - Missoula Technology Development Center
- Alex Roberston - U.S. Forest Service - Ochoco National Forest
Photo support provided by:
- Engine 608 - White River National Forest (Nathan Goodacre, Joel Hendrickson, Bonnie Konczal, Mike Ottosen)
Google Earth fly-around animation for the Storm King Mountain area.
Second Google Earth fly-around animation for the Storm King Mountain area.
Documents and Publications:
*These documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
- Executive Summary of the Accident Investigation (1994)
- *OSHA Violation Notices (1995)
- Interagency Management Review Team Report (1995)
- Findings of the Human Factors Workshop (1995)
- Wildland Firefighter Safety Awareness Study (1995-1998)
- Fire Behavior Associated with the South Canyon Fire (1998)
- Chronology for the South Canyon Fire from Fire Behavior Associated with the South Canyon Fire, Appendix B, p. 69 (1998)
- 10 Years After South Canyon: Review of Firefighting Safety (2004)
Local Contact Information
Colorado River Valley Bureau of Land Management Field Office
2300 River Frontage Road
Silt, Colorado 81652
Phone (970) 876-9000
Stand 1 is located at the Storm King Mountain Memorial Trailhead. This trail is a tribute to those who lost their lives while battling the South Canyon Fire and a tribute to firefighters everywhere. It also allows us to reflect on the lessons we have learned to help reduce the likelihood of similar tragedies in the future.
The trail was built by a community literally working through the grieving process. It began as a footpath made by families of the firefighters and others as they hiked the mountain to pay their respects to those who had died, and to try to understand what had happened. In response to the community's need, and to increase understanding, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and volunteers built the trail.
The South Canyon Fire started on July 2, 1994, because of a passing lightning storm. The point of origin was on a ridge which was paralleled by two deep drainages (known as the East & West Drainages). The fire was not reported until July 3rd, it was estimated to be ½ acre in size at that time.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, a BLM engine crew met with the Garfield County Sheriff at a vantage point below the fire. An initial size-up was completed. There were several higher priority fires in the area, the fire was judged to be inaccessible, and the rate of spread was low. The District Fire Control Officer agreed with initial assessment - the fire would be put in monitor status until the higher priority fires were staffed. Over the next two days, the South Canyon Fire steadily increased in size. On the evening of July 4th, the fire was estimated at 11 acres by the Aerial Observer.
The Trailhead is located approximately 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado on Interstate Highway 70. Take Exit 109 and make an immediate right to follow the frontage road eastward; this road will dead-end at the Trailhead parking lot.
Over 100 volunteers from Glenwood Springs and the surrounding area built the main trail and water bars in October 1994. In April 1995, 60 Cadets from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs installed wooden and stone steps, hauled mortar to the observation point for stone benches, dug holes for interpretive signs, and developed an area for reflection at the base of the hill where 12 of the firefighters fell. Local businesses donated goods and services throughout the trail's construction.
This photo was taken from the Canyon Creek Estates subdivision on July 4th, 1994 at 12:00. The subdivision is located about 2 miles west of the fire.
The trail up to the ridge takes visitors on the journey of the firefighter. It was left steep and rough allowing visitors to experience something similar to what firefighters encounter. Signs provide visitors with information about why firefighters would choose this job and what they need to be aware of to do their job safely and efficiently.
Early in the morning on July 5th, an initial attack response consisting of an Incident Commander and a crew of seven from the local BLM District was sent to the South Canyon Fire. They walked to fire up the East Drainage which took approximately 2 ½ hours. The crew cut a helispot (H-1) on the ridge above the fire and began direct line construction downhill along the fire edge below the helispot. The Incident Commander ordered another engine crew, a helicopter, and a 20-person crew. Due to a shortage of hand crews, it was decided that a load of eight smokejumpers would be substituted for the 20-person crew.
Suppression efforts that day consisted of direct hand line and airtanker drops. The drops were deemed ineffective due to high winds and steep terrain. Late in the afternoon, the BLM firefighters left the fire when the eight smokejumpers parachuted onto the main ridgeline. The two crews never made face-to-face contact and the smokejumpers talked with the Incident Commander by radio to get instructions for their assignment.
That evening the fire had crossed the line constructed earlier by the BLM crew and was burning actively. After sizing up the fire, the Jumper-in-Charge called Grand Junction District Dispatch and ordered two Type 1 hand crews. The smokejumpers began building a downhill fireline on the east side of the ridge.
On July 5th, the fire grew from 29 acres at 0800 to 50 acres by 2200.
This location provides an excellent vantage point of the Double Draws, the Lunch Spot, Petrilli's photo point, and Longanecker's position above the West Drainage. Anywhere along this ridgeline between where the trail first crests the ridge and the Overlook Point can serve as Stand 2. This location is approximately ½ mile from the Trailhead.
The trail follows the ridgeline, there are great vantage points all along the ridgeline.
The trail follows the top of the ridgeline from Stand 2 for approximately 1/3 mile to a spur ridge looking east toward Hell's Gate Ridge below Storm King Mountain where most of the events occurred. At this location, interpretive signs tell the story of the fire. If constrained by time or physical limitations, this stand may serve well as the last stand and the group can conduct Integration discussions at this point.
The Overlook Point is approximately one mile from the Trailhead (Stand 1). This stand provides an observation point offering an excellent view of the memorial sites along with interpretive signs explaining what happened during the South Canyon Fire. The signs also describe the fire season of 1994, different types of firefighting crews, and how the mountain is coming back to life. This stand may serve as a final destination for individuals who are constrained by time or may have physical limitations. This is a good location to conduct a terrain orientation and describe the locations of the various resources working on the South Canyon Fire.
On the morning of July 6th, the Jumper-in-Charge ordered a helicopter for gear removal and requested a fixed-wing aircraft with an Aerial Observer. After discussions with Dispatch, it was agreed upon to use the helicopter for reconnaissance instead of the fixed-wing aircraft with Aerial Observer.
The local hand crew, now consisting of 11 firefighters walked back up to the fire that morning. Helicopter 93R arrived at 0930 with a limit of 4 hours of flight time. Eight additional smokejumpers parachuted into the top of the fire at 1030. The Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew arrived at Canyon Creek Estates subdivision at 1200.
When the Prineville Hotshot Crew arrived, the Jumper-in-Charge requested they be ferried into the fire by helicopter and then resume using the helicopter for reconnaissance. By mid-afternoon, the local hand crew was working between H-1 and H-2 improving line and the smokejumpers were working on the west flank of the fire along with nine Prineville Hotshots.
These plaques describe the fires of 1994, the various types of firefighting crews, the role of fire in the ecosystem, and the events of July 6, 1994.
The illustration on this plaque provides the observer with good terrain orientation and description of where the firefighters were located.
While standing on the West Flank Fireline your vision is obscured by the dense Gamble Oak beginning to grow back to pre-1994 conditions.
The arrival of the second half of the Prineville Hotshot Crew was delayed due to competing priorities for bucket drops from the helicopter. Visibility during line construction was limited due to the tall Gamble Oak brush.
On July 6th between 1130 and 1300, two flare-ups occurred on the west flank which forced the group of smokejumpers to momentarily retreat up the fireline toward the top of the ridge. Several of the smokejumpers discussed their concerns about the safety of building the fireline downhill. After a water drop from the helicopter cooled the flare-up, the smokejumpers proceeded back down the fireline; the tree that flared up was cut down leaving the stump as identified as Stand 4.
The second half of the Prineville Hotshot Crew remained on the ridge to work spot fires along the ridge. The Incident Commander, Jumper-in-Charge, and Hotshot Superintendent discussed strategy and fire behavior. At mid-day, the winds were observed to be about 6 to 10 m.p.h. out of the southwest. Helicopter bucket drops were being used below the fireline on the west flank to help contain some areas that were heating up. The decision was made to continue building line down the west flank.
From Stand 3 the trail drops down into West Drainage and climbs up the opposite side to Zero Point Ridge. Going south from Zero Point the trail is the West Flank Fireline, follow the trail down through fatality sites until you see the marker for The Stump.
Smokejumpers and part of the Prineville Hotshot Crew on the West Flank Fireline, surrounded by thick Gamble Oak on the slope of Storm King Mountain. Photo by Tony Petrilli, U.S. Forest Service.
When you stand at the Lunch Spot you can see the double draws and the large drainage off to the west between you and the Overlook Point. It is here, after a lunch break, that a few of the smokejumpers and hotshots were instructed to work back up the west flank looking for hotspots and improving the line. Several individuals at different locations saw that the wind speed was beginning to increase. A Line Scout was working south from the Lunch Spot, down the hill past the end of the fireline and requested some help. The decision was made to focus on holding the existing line that was constructed while three smokejumpers tried to assist the Line Scout. Soon after that, the fire made several rapid runs within a previously under burned area just above the Line Scout. The three smokejumpers decided it was not a good idea to commit to the area where the Line Scout was located. At 1600 the fire blew up. It crossed the West Drainage at the base of the gully below the Line Scout. Within minutes a wall of flame was racing up the opposite slope. The Incident Commander directed the Jumper-in-Charge to bring the firefighters up from the bottom of the fireline. A smokejumper with the view of the blowup called the Jumper-in-Charge to tell him that the fire had crossed the main drainage and was "rolling." The fire was now being pushed by 30 m.p.h. winds.
The West Flank Fireline stops here at the Lunch Spot. The top of the Double Draws, Longanecker's location, and Petrilli's photo point are accessible from this location.
Longanecker working as Line Scout well below the Lunch Spot and on a spur ridge to the south. When the fire blew up, he worked his way back to the area designated as the Lunch Spot and stayed there throughout the entrapment without deploying a fire shelter.
At 1611 the Incident Commander called Dispatch to report that he was losing the fire on the side where the homes were and that he needed airtankers. At 1620 an airtanker was dispatched.
Between 1614 and 1618 the fire was observed to spot back to the east side of the drainage below the crew that was walking up the fireline on the west flank. As the fire raced up the slope, it was influenced by increasingly stronger winds estimated to be 40 m.p.h. The spot fire grew rapidly and reached the ridgeline in less than 10 minutes, overrunning 14 firefighters.
On the afternoon of July 6, 1994, there were 16 smokejumpers, 20 hotshots, a 6-person helitack crew (two on the fire and four at the helibase), and 12 local firefighters (11 on the fire and one at the helibase) assigned to the fire, for a total of 54 firefighters.
The trip from the Trailhead (Stand 1) to Zero Point (Stand 6) and back is about four miles. It climbs 700 vertical feet to the Overlook Point (Stand 3), and another 450 feet to the top of the ridge leading to Zero Point. Visitors making the entire trip should plan on spending between three and four hours and should bring food, plenty of water, and wear sturdy hiking shoes and clothing appropriate to the weather.
At Zero Point, you get a feel for the gravity of the situation, this is where the last survivors from the west flank were literally "blown" over the ridge into the East Drainage. All the other survivors from the ridge also used the East Drainage to escape imminent death. This location serves as an excellent place to conduct an Integration session of the Staff Ride. Facilitators can build a terrain model for individuals to discuss their perceptions of how events unfolded that fateful day.
From Stand 5 participants can hike back the West Flank Fireline approximately a ½ mile to Zero Point. Another option is for participants to hike up Lunch Spot Ridge to H-1 and walk due north to Zero Point.
The junction of the Main Ridge and the top of the West Flank Fireline is an important geographical location regarding firefighter location and movement. This point was identified in the Research Paper RMRS-RP-9, Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado, and was used as a reference for distances along the Main Ridge and the West Flank Fireline.
A group called the Storm King 14 Committee raised over $165,000 and erected a statue and individual memorials at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs.
If there are time constraints or physical limitations, this location may serve well as the first stand or the last stand. In addition, this area provides a good initial meeting point for conducting a staff ride with a large group.
Two Rivers Park covers 22 acres and has plenty of parking. In addition to the memorial site, the park includes restrooms, picnic areas, and two park shelters.
This plaque is a duplicate of the one located at the Overlook Point (Stand 3). The memorial honors those who fell on this day describing the events of July 6, 1994.
Map of the Two Rivers Park Memorial located in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at the confluence of the Colorado River and the Roaring Fork River.