Honoring our fallen firefighters by increasing situational awareness

Story by Melissa Schnee, Public Affairs Specialist; and Color Country and Paria River Districts fire staff. Photos by Color Country and Paria River Districts fire staff.

BLM Utah Wildland Firefighter Spencer Koyle Memorial Photo.
Spencer Stanley Koyle, age 33.

Approximately 30 BLM wildland firefighters from across Utah gathered in Oak City, Utah last month to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the Devil’s Den Fire, which took the life of one of their own. After hiking to the rim of the canyon, the firefighters spent time discussing the events that turned that day into a tragedy for 33-year-old Spencer Koyle, his family, BLM Utah, partner agencies and the greater community. While this memory gives many a heavy heart, it is also understood that to honor Koyle’s sacrifice and legacy, we must implement important lessons learned to better prepare every firefighter for situations to come.

Robert Lopez, BLM Utah Color Country and Paria River Districts Assistant Fire Management Officer and Devil’s Den Fire Incident Commander, often attends these staff rides to share his first-hand memories of the fire.

“The fire activity went from docile to fierce and aggressive within a matter of minutes,” said Lopez. “Any situation can change in an instant. In this case, the quick, environmental change contributed to ending the life of a beloved husband, father, colleague and friend.” 

The Devil’s Den Fire was first reported on August 15, 2006, east of Oak City, Utah, on the Fillmore Ranger District, USDA Forest Service Fishlake National Forest. Interagency crews responded and through the night efforts were made to halt the fire’s spread and mobilize additional resources to the area, at a time when resources were scarce. For the next day and a half, firefighters on the ground constructed hand line along the 55-75-degree slope, steering clear of the box canyon’s watch out situations. Aerial resources performed numerous water and retardant drops, assisting crews on the ground.

On August 17, just after noon, Koyle, who was then the Fire Operations Supervisor; the Incident Commander; and the Incident Commander Trainee, took a reconnaissance flight. Koyle had a broader role in the incident; he was assessing not only the current fire situation, but looking ahead to fire management considerations across the zone. While the Incident Commander and Trainee met with crews to discuss both direct and indirect plans of attack due to the many safety concerns that the canyon presented, Koyle headed down into the canyon to recon the area on foot. Around this time, a general increase in fire activity was noted by personnel on the ridge. After working his way down the canyon, Koyle began initiating direct attack on the fire by way of aerial support. Shortly after, the fire spotted above him. While a helicopter was working to suppress the hot spot above Koyle, the fire activity caused turbulence and visual impairment, forcing the helicopter to return to helibase.

Koyle began to run up the canyon. Driven by fierce winds, the fast-moving fire overran Koyle, cutting off his evacuation route. “Your mind goes to a worst-case-scenario. It was a surreal moment,” said Lopez. “I was hoping he had lost his radio when he dropped his pack to maneuver more efficiently. But, to learn you lost a colleague and a friend makes the situation much more difficult to process.” 

Two photos of a plaque dedicated to Spencer Koyle is mounted at the rim of Devil's Den box canyon honoring his service and legacy.
A plaque dedicated to Spencer Koyle is mounted at the rim of Devil's Den box canyon honoring his service and legacy.

Maintaining situational awareness is vital to a firefighter’s safety on any incident. BLM Utah Color Country and Paria River Districts Fire Management Officer Josh Tibbetts said firefighters face multiple threats, both visible and invisible, on the ground.

“Diversifying our training prior to peak fire months in Utah helps us all improve and build upon our situational awareness skills,” said Tibbetts. “Making this staff ride a possibility year after year, allows us to honor Koyle’s memory, train together in a reflective manner, learn through discussion and observation, and prevent complacency on our incidents moving forward.” 

Two photos of Color Country and Paria River Districts fire staff. Wildland fire staff circle around to hear the lessons learned from personnel who were present at the Devil's Den Fire incident. This year's staff ride attendees pause for a moment near Devil's Den box canyon.
Wildland fire staff circle around to hear the lessons learned from personnel who were present at the Devil's Den Fire incident. This year's staff ride attendees pause for a moment near Devil's Den box canyon.

In honor and respect of Koyle’s line-of-duty death, BLM Utah Color Country and Paria River Districts ask that we prioritize situational awareness in all of our duties and assignments, each and every day. Situational awareness can have different definitions depending on its application to a specific discipline. While it is easy to overlook, continual observation of our ever-changing environments will strengthen and improve our overall mission and safety, both on and off the fire line.