The South Canyon Fire Investigation

 

Executive Summary

 

Photo of South Canyon fire

THE INCIDENT

On July 2, 1994, during a year of drought and at a time of low humidity and record high temperatures, lightning ignited a fire 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  The fire was reported to the Bureau of Land Management on July 3 as being in South Canyon, but later reports placed it near the base of Storm King Mountain.  The fire began on a ridge, which was paralleled by two canyons or deep drainages, called in this report the east and the west drainages.  In its early stages, the fire burned in pinyon-juniper fuel type and was thought to have little potential for spread.

Dry lightning storms had started 40 new fires in BLM's Grand Junction District in the 2 days before the South Canyon fire started, requiring the District to set priorities for initial attack.  Highest priority was given to fires threatening life, residences, structures, utilities, and to fires with the greatest potential for spread.  All initial attack firefighting resources on the Grand junction District were committed to the highest priority fires.  In response to a request from the Grand Junction District, the Garfield County Sheriff's Office and White River National Forest monitored the South Canyon Fire.

Over the next 2 days the South Canyon Fire increased in size, the public expressed more concern about it, and some initial attack resources were assigned.  On the afternoon of July 4 the District sent two engines.  Arriving at 6:30 p.m. at the base of the ridge near Interstate 70, the crew sized up the fire but decided to wait until morning to hike to the fire and begin fire fighting efforts.

The next morning, a seven person BLM/Forest Service crew hiked 2 1/2 hours to the fire, cleared a helicopter landing area (Helispot 1) and started building a fireline on its southwest side.  During the day an air tanker dropped retardant on the fire.  In the evening the crew left the fire to repair their chainsaws.  Shortly thereafter, eight smokejumpers parachuted to the fire and received instructions from the Incident Commander to continue constructing the fireline.  The fire had crossed the original fireline, so they began a second fireline from Helispot 1 downhill on the east side of the ridge.  After midnight they abandoned this work due to the darkness and hazards of rolling rocks.

On the morning of July 6 the BLM/Forest Service Crew returned to the fire and worked with the smokejumpers to clear a second helicopter landing area (Helispot 2).  Later that morning eight more smokejumpers parachuted to the fire and were assigned to build the fireline on the west flank.  Later, ten Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew members arrived, and nine joined the smokejumpers in line construction.  Upon arrival, the remaining members of the hotshot crew were sent to help reinforce the fireline on the ridgetop.

At 3:20 p.m. a dry cold front moved into the fire area.  As winds and the fire activity increased, the fire made several rapid runs with 100 foot flame lengths within the existing burn.  At 4:00 p.m. the fire crossed  the bottom of the west drainage and spread up the drainage on the west side.  It soon spotted back across the drainage to the east side beneath the firefighters and moved onto steep slopes and into dense, highly flammable Gambel oak.  Within seconds a wall of flames raced up the hill toward the firefighters on the west flank fireline.  Failing to outrun the flames, 12 firefighters perished.  Two helitack crew members on the top of the ridge also died when they tried to outrun the fire to the northwest.  The remaining 35 firefighters survived by escaping out the east drainage or seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters.

THE INVESTIGATION

Within 3 hours of the blowup, and interagency team was forming to investigate the entrapment of the South Canyon Fire.  The team first met on the evening of July 7.  Team members were given their assignments, and the team presented a charter to the Chief of the USDA Forest Service and the Director of the Bureau of Land Management.  Les Rosenkrance, BLM's Arizona State Director, was designated team leader.

In the next few days the team investigated the fire and fatality sites and began a series of 70 interviews with witnesses.  In addition, the team met once or twice a day to discuss progress, clarify assignments, plan their report, and review their findings.  On July 22, with the interviews and much of the investigation report completed, the team adjourned.  The following week some team members met in Phoenix, Arizona to complete work on the incident overview.  On August 9-11, the team reconvened to review a draft of the completed report in preparation for its publication.
 

CAUSAL FACTORS

DIRECT CAUSES

The Investigation Team determined that the direct causes of the entrapment in the South Canyon fire are as follows.

FIRE BEHAVIOR

Fuels

  • Fuels were extremely dry and susceptible to rapid and explosive spread.
  • The potential for extreme fire behavior and reburn in Gambel oak was not recognized on the South Canyon Fire.

Weather

  • A cold front, with winds of up to 45 mph, passed through the fire area on the afternoon of July 6.

Topography

  • The steep topography, with slopes from 50 to 100 percent, magnified the fire behavior effects of fuel and weather.

Predicted Behavior

  • The fire behavior on July 6 could have been predicted on the basis of fuels, weather, and topography, but fire behavior information was not requested or provided.  Therefore critical information was not available for developing strategy and tactics.

Observed Behavior

  • A major blowup did occur on July 6 beginning at 4:00 p.m.  Maximum rates of spread of 18 mph and flames as high as 200 to 300 feet made escape by firefighters extremely difficult.

INCIDENT MANAGEMENT

Strategy and Tactics

  • Escape routes and safety zones were inadequate for the burning conditions that prevailed.  The building of the west flank downhill fireline was hazardous.  Most of the guidelines for reducing the hazards of downhill line construction in the Fireline Handbook (PMS 410-01) were not followed.
  • Strategy and tactics were not adjusted to compensate for observed and potential extreme fire behavior.  Tactics were also not adjusted when Type I crews and air support did not arrive on time on July 5 and 6.

Safety Briefing and Major Concerns

  • Given the potential fire behavior, the escape route along the west flank fireline was too long and too steep.
  • Eight of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders were compromised.
  • Twelve of the 18 Watch Out Situations were not recognized, or proper action was not taken.
  • The Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew (an out of state crew) was not briefed on local conditions, fuels, or fire weather forecasts before being sent to the South Canyon Fire.

INVOLVED PERSONNEL PROFILE

  • The "can do" attitude of supervisors and firefighters led to a compromising of Standard Firefighting Orders and a lack of recognition of the 18 Watch Out Situations.
  • Despite the fact that they recognized that the situation was dangerous, firefighters who had concerns about building the west flank fireline questioned the strategy and tactics but chose to continue with line construction.

EQUIPMENT

  • Personal protective equipment performed within design limitations, but wind turbulence and the intensity and rapid advance of the fire exceeded these limitations or prevented effective deployment of fire shelters.
  • Packs with fusees taken into a fire shelter compromised the occupant's safety.
  • Carrying tools and packs significantly slowed escape efforts.


CONTRIBUTORY CAUSES

The following factors contributed to the entrapment on the South Canyon Fire.

INCIDENT MANAGEMENT AND CONTROL MECHANISMS
 

  • The initial suppression action was delayed for 2 days because of higher priority fires on the Grand Junction District.
  • Air support was inadequate for implementing strategies and tactics on July 6.

SUPPORT STRUCTURE

  • The above-normal fire activity overtaxed a relatively small firefighting organization at the Grand Junction District and Western Slope Fire Coordination Center.
  • Detailed fire weather and fire behavior information was not given to firefighters on the South Canyon Fire.
  • Dispatching procedures and communications with the Incident Commander did not give a clear understanding of what resources (crews and air support) would be provided to the fire in response to requests and orders.
  • Unclear operating procedures between the Western Slope Fire Coordination Center and the Grand Junction District's fire organizations resulted in confusion about priority setting, operating procedures, and availability of firefighting resources, including initial attack resources (i.e. helitack firefighters, smokejumpers, and retardant aircraft).  This lack of definition limited the effectiveness in the timing and priority of the suppression of the South Canyon Fire.
  • The lack of Grand Junction District and Colorado State Office management oversight, technical guidance, and direction resulted in uncertainty concerning the roles and responsibilities of the Western Slope Fire Coordination Center and the Grand Junction District.

Check out the following for more information on the South Canyon Fire: 

Fire Behavior Associated With the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado, September 1998

 

Photo of South Canyon fire