Wildfire Tragedy: Storm King Mountain

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July 2: Before the Fire

South Canyon Estates. Steve Nix

A disaster was in the making when a red-flag warning was issued by a National Weather Service forecaster on Saturday, July 2, 1994, from an office in Grand Junction, Colorado, one that would eventually lead to the death of 14 firefighters who were attempting to put out the ensuing fire. 

Over the next several days, drought, high temperatures, low humidity and electrical storms caused thousands of "dry" lightning strikes across western Colorado, many of which started wildfires.

On July 3, lightning ignited a fire 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The fire was reported from a resident of Canyon Creek Estates (A) to the Bureau of Land Management as being in the South Canyon, later to be located nearer the base of Storm King Mountain; the small fire was in a remote area and several ridges away from any private property, and it could be seen from I-70 (B), the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway and the Colorado River (C).

With dozens of new fires burning, the Bureau of Land Management District started setting priorities for initial attack wherein the highest priority was assigned to fires threatening lives, residences, structures and utilities, and to fires with the greatest potential for spread. The South Canyon fire did not make the priority list.

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July 3-4: Early Response

Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail.

The South Canyon fire started on a high point on Hell's Gate Ridge at the base of Storm King Mountain paralleled by two canyons or deep drainages on the east and west sides. In its early stages, the fire burned in the pinyon-juniper fuel type (D) but was thought to have little potential for spread. It did as expected for a short time.

Over the next 48 hours, the fire burned downslope in the leaves, twigs and cured grasses covering the ground surface. By noon on July 4 the fire had only burned approximately 3 acres.

But the South Canyon Fire did spread and was still increasing in size over the next day. The public expressed more concern about it with numerous phone calls to fire authorities from the closest structures in Canyon Creek Estates. An initial attack resource of two BLM district engines was sent in the late afternoon of July 4 to the base of the ridge near Interstate 70. They decided it was late and to wait until morning to hike to the fire and to coordinate firefighting efforts.

A trail (E) is located approximately where firefighters approached the South Canyon Fire on the first day, which begins off the end of a paved access road just east of the entrance to Canyon Creek Estates.

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July 5: Dispatching the Helicopters

Helispot Locations.

The next morning, July 5, a seven-person BLM and Forest Service crew hiked for two and a half hours to the fire, cleared a helicopter landing area called Helispot 1 (HS-1) and started building a fireline on its south and west side. During the day an air tanker dropped water-based retardant on the fire without much effect.

Efforts to transport bucket water to the fire initially were not allowed because "drop water" collected in the nearby Colorado River was prohibited from crossing Interstate 70, and there was a state regulation — which was eventually waived, too late — against flying full water buckets across major highways because it was considered dangerous to traffic.

In the evening, the BLM and USFS crew left the fire to repair their chainsaws, and shortly thereafter, eight smokejumpers parachuted to the fire and received instructions from their incident commander to continue constructing the fireline.

The fire had crossed the original fireline, so they began the second fireline from Helispot 1 downhill on the east side of the ridge. After midnight they abandoned this work due to the darkness and the hazards of rolling rocks.

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July 6: Smokejumpers and the Prineville Responders

The Fatal Fireline.

On the morning of July 6, the BLM and Forest Service crews returned to the fire and worked with the smokejumpers to clear a second helicopter landing area called Helispot 2 (HS-2). Later that morning eight more smokejumpers parachuted to the fire just north of HS-2 and were assigned to build a fireline starting on the west flank through thick Gambel oak (F).

Ten Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew members from Prineville, Oregon, still fresh from another fire just fought, were reactivated and rushed to Colorado's Storm King Mountain, where nine members of the crew joined the smokejumpers in line construction. Upon arrival, one member of the hotshot crew was selected and sent to help reinforce the fire line on the ridge top, and subsequently, his life was spared.

The underburned Gambel oak they had to work in was significant in that it did not provide a safety zone for the crew to use — the green-leaved oak looked safe but could explode when superheated; it could and probably did lull crew members into a sense of false security.

The area's steep topography, its thick and flammable vegetation that limited visibility and the wind increased during the early afternoon collectively conspired to cause a firestorm that would kill more firefighters than any wildfire had in the last century.

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July 6: The Battle Begins

The Battleground.

At 3:20 p.m. on July 6, a dry cold front moved onto Storm King Mountain and up Hell's Gate Ridge. As winds and fire activity increased, the fire made several rapid runs with 100-foot flame lengths within the existing burn.

Meanwhile, winds coming up the "west canyon" were creating what is known as a "chimney effect," and this rapid funneling of oxygen fed flames that would never be stopped. Hotshots, smokejumpers, helitack and engine crews, and water tankers worked frantically to stop the fire but were rapidly overwhelmed. At that moment the fire crew on the fireline became concerned.

At 4:00 p.m. the fire spotted across 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 across the original firebreak while also moving onto the steep slopes and into dense, green but highly flammable Gambel oak.

Within seconds a wall of flame 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 top of the ridge also died when they attempted to outrun the fire to the northwest.

Being at the right place at the right time saved a majority of the fire crew. The 35 surviving firefighters either escaped east over Hell's Gate Ridge and out the "east canyon" drainage or they found a safe area and deployed their fire shelters.

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July 6: The Prineville Hotshot

The Hotshot Memorial.

The photo here was taken looking east (toward Glenwood Springs) and up at Hell's Gate Ridge. Just to the right of the red "X," you can just see the fireline running downslope and along the western drainage.

Prineville hotshot Scott Blecha died 120 feet from the top of the fireline trying to reach the Zero Point (Z). Blecha almost outpaced the fire but was taken down 100 feet ahead of the other crew members. The entire crew started the tragic run for their lives from well down the fireline, but the steep terrain and their tired bodies took away any hope that they could survive the run. Again, note the fireline, now a ​footpath, to the right of the red X on this photo.

Prineville hotshot crew members Kathi Beck, Tami Bickett, Levi Brinkley, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson and Jon Kelso, along with smokejumpers Don Mackey, Roger Roth and James Thrash, were entrapped and died 200 to 280 feet below the Zero Point (at the X). None were ever able to deploy fire shelters.

Don Mackey, a smokejumper crew boss who became more and more concerned about the situation, actually retreated to the rear to try and help several others to safety. He, and they, never made it out.

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July 6: The Fate of the Helitack Crew

The Helitack Memorial.

As the fire approached Helispot 2 (HS-2), helitack crew members Robert Browning and Richard Tyler headed toward the smokejumper drop zone located about 1,000 feet to the northeast. The helicopter pilot could not contact the two helitack crew members and pulled off the fire because of high winds, heat, and smoke.

Escaping firefighters entering the east drainage to relative safety radioed and yelled for the two helitack crewmen to follow them down the drainage. Browning and Tyler never responded and made a dash to the northeast.

The two helitack crewmembers were forced by the fire to go northwest from the smokejumper drop zone toward a bare rocky outcropping. As they neared the rocky face, they encountered a 50-foot-deep gulley.

Evidence gathered during the postfire inspection suggests that after entering the gully, they set their gear down and moved about 30 feet down the gully, where they attempted to deploy their fire shelters.

The postfire evidence suggests that the two firefighters, Browning and Tyler, were incapacitated and died when they were engulfed in hot air and smoke before they could fully deploy and enter their fire shelters (X). These two firefighters could not be found for dozens of hours after the hotshots were located, leading to false hopes that they may have survived.

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Present Day: Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail

The Memorial Trailhead.

The Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail is one of many memorials to those who lost their lives battling the South Canyon fire. The trail started as the best approach to the tragic spot by grieving family members of the lost firefighters and a local community in shock. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and local volunteers have since improved the trail.

The trail is designed to take hikers on a journey as if they were firefighters climbing to a fire. The memorial trail was left steep and rough, allowing visitors to experience something similar to what firefighters encounter. Signs along the trail provide useful information on what it feels like to be a wildland firefighter.

The main portion of the trail is about 1 1/2 miles long and leads to an observation point with a good view of the entire field where the fire took place. Beyond the observation point, a footpath leads to the sites where firefighters died. The footpath, marked only by rock cairns, is not maintained. ​Its rough condition is intended as a tribute to firefighters and the challenging conditions under which they passed away.

You can access to the Storm King Mountain Memorial Trailhead by car by traveling west from Glenwood Springs down Interstate 70 for about 5 miles. Take the Canyon Creek Exit (#109), then turn east on the frontage road, which will end at the trailhead.