The Post Independent continues a week-long series of stories commemorating the 20th anniversary of the July 6, 1994, South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, which claimed the lives of 14 federal wildland firefighters. They will forever be remembered for their brave efforts.
A new firefighting term was coined following the 1994 South Canyon Fire disaster on Storm King Mountain that killed 14 wildland firefighters.
“One of the main messages to emerge was for firefighters to be more situationally aware,” said Bill Gabbert, a retired federal wildfire fighter and writer from South Dakota who now maintains the website WildfireToday.com.
“That means being aware of the surroundings, the topography, the vegetation and especially the weather,” Gabbert said. “South Canyon, that’s when the term situational awareness came into firefighters’ vocabulary.”
A primary criticism in a pair of investigations following the deadly July 6, 1994, blowup near Glenwood Springs was that critical weather information was not adequately communicated to the fire managers and firefighters working what, to that point, had been a relatively sleepy fire burning downhill from a high ridge.
The tragic result was the loss of nine federal wildland Hot Shots, three Smokejumpers and two Helitack crew members who were building a fire line on an adjacent slope and became trapped when the fire snuck up behind them, pushed by 40-mph wind gusts from a cold front.
It’s a frustration Chris Cuoco, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Junction, holds to this day, as expressed in Dan Warner’s 2013 film documentary, When the Smoke Clears: Firefighter Deaths in the West.
Cuoco explains in the documentary that the combination of dry fuels, primarily Gambel oak in the case of Storm King, and a series of dry lightning storms that preceded the approaching cold front was a deadly mix.
“I saw the danger, and that this front would take those 100 or 150 fires that started on July 2, and make some of them grow very big, very fast,” Cuoco comments in the film.
The night before the blowup on Storm King, Cuoco said he upgraded the weather watch to a red flag warning with accompanying high winds.
“It was frustrating, and painful, to know something I worked hard to get right, and get out to other people didn’t make it,” he said. “It still gets to me.”
Warner’s film draws comparisons between South Canyon and the deadly Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona last summer that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots. It also raises questions about whether lessons really were learned after the previous tragedy 20 years ago.
Changes did come
Todd Richardson, lead fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Colorado, said lessons were learned and numerous changes made after the South Canyon Fire.
Richardson, who will be one of the speakers at a commemorative event in Two Rivers Park this Sunday, was running a fire engine for the BLM in 1994 and was working a fire near Montrose at the time of the Glenwood Springs tragedy. Four years later, he started working as an assistant fire manager.
“One of the most important things we learned as fire managers is a dedication to listening and communicating within our organization, and how we teach and mentor that to the young firefighters,” Richardson said.
“We realized we needed to teach people the right way to speak up on the fire line, and to facilitate and encourage that, but at the same time be the experts that everyone expects you to be,” he said.
While the interagency fire investigation that followed the South Canyon incident criticized a “can-do” attitude on the part of the firefighters at the expense of their safety, a second report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration leveled much of the blame on BLM and U.S. Forest Service management of the incident.
Another evolution in fire management following South Canyon was in the use of what’s called LCES, “Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes and Safety Zones,” Richardson said.
Both on Storm King 20 years ago and at Yarnell last year, in addition to similar weather factors, another of the critical investigative findings was that lookouts were not placed on the mountain to see where the fire was in relation to the firefighters and that they needed to be in radio contact if there was a problem.
“As you move in on a fire, you also want to be modifying and revising and reassessing your escape routes,” Richardson said. “As opposed to the fire running you, you need to let safety run you on the fire.”
Assessing the danger
Bill Hahnenberg was a district ranger for the Forest Service in Meeker at the time of the South Canyon Fire, and today works with the incident command team for the Upper Colorado River Interagency unit in Grand Junction.
“South Canyon was a catalyst for many of the changes that were made over the last 20 years,” he said. “The biggest one is, before we send firefighters out to engage in fire suppression, the management officers take a close look at the values at risk so that they can determine an appropriate action.”
Those values can include natural and cultural resources, fisheries and any private property that potentially is threatened.
“It used to be that we responded to every fire pretty aggressively, but that has evolved,” Hahnenberg said. “Another change is the level of responsibility firefighters themselves take for personal safety, and to make sure we have a feedback system in place.”
Another of the criticisms after South Canyon was that some of the firefighters had questioned the position they were put in, amid thick brush on a steep slope with little or no awareness of the changing weather and the danger that lurked below them.
“I remember Jim Thrash [one of the fire victims] commented, ‘This isn’t a good idea, we shouldn’t be here,’” former firefighter Eric Hipke says during an interview for Warner’s documentary.
Hipke, one of the smokejumpers on the mountain that day 20 years ago, managed to make it to the top of the ridge ahead of Thrash and the team of Hot Shots just below them, suffering severe burns on his hands and ears as he barely escaped.
“It’s that fine line between bringing up concerns and being a whiner,” Hipke says in the film.
In addition to better preparation and assessment before attacking a fire, and making sure to have good communication between managers and those fighting the fire, education and training of firefighters is also much greater today, Hahnenberg said.
Another improvement made after South Canyon, he said, was in the way fire agencies, both federal land fire managers and local fire departments, communicate with each other and cooperate on fire incidents.
A criticism 20 years ago was that, with resources spread thin fighting dozens of fires across the Western Slope, the BLM decided to monitor the small lightning-caused fire on Storm King Mountain during the initial three days after it started.
Local fire agencies reportedly offered to hike up and put out the fire soon after it started, but were advised by BLM officials to wait until they could bring the more highly trained wildland firefighters in.
“The level of coordination between federal agencies and city or county fire organizations is much, much higher now,” Hahnenberg said. “There is also a greater emphasis on wildland fire training and capability with the local departments.”
Lapse in judgment
If so many lessons were learned and procedures changed in the last 20 years since South Canyon, the big question after the Yarnell Hill disaster last year was “what went wrong?”
No matter how many advance precautions and safety procedures are in place, though, much comes down to spur-of-the-moment decisions made on the front line of a fire, the BLM’s Richardson said.
“If you’re a student of human factors and how people interact, you realize errors in judgment can still be made,” he said.
Ironically, the Granite Hill Hot Shots had taken part in one of the staff rides on Storm King Mountain just the year before the Yarnell fire. Staff rides are where young firefighters are shown, firsthand through a field trip to a former fire scene, what can happen and what can go wrong.
“For me to say how 19 people interacted on Yarnell, I can’t do that,” Richardson said. “There’s the saying, ‘don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.’ That’s why we do the staff rides.”
While training has improved, Hahnenberg said recruiting of new firefighters has been difficult in recent years, especially with the increasing fire danger brought on by persistent drought.
“For the most part, we have a pretty talented group of men and women out there that want these jobs,” he said. “Over the last two decades, we have put a lot more into training individuals as come up through our system, and to build what we call a learning culture to make better decisions and effectively lead organizations.”
Gabbert, the WildfireToday website manager, said another change he has been pushing for is better use of available technology in fire incident management.
“The Holy Grail of safety,” he said, is to be able to display in real time on a hand-held screen the location of firefighters on the ground in relation to the fire itself.
“The technology is available, the military has been using it for years,” Gabbert said, adding the use of unmanned drones has also been discussed within firefighting circles.
“My position is that the lives of 24 firefighters could have been saved over the last eight years if we had been using this technology,” Gabbert said in reference to the 19 firefighters lost at Yarnell and five others who were killed on the Esperanza Fire in Southern California in 2006.