Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado
The tragic loss of 14 lives on July 6, 1994, on a fire in western central Colorado stunned both firefighters and nonfirefighters everywhere. Immediately after the incident, one question on everyone’s mind was, “Why and how did this happen?” The Federal agencies involved in the fire launched an official investigation. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched a separate investigation. The first official report on the accident was released 5 weeks after the incident. Other reports followed within a year. Investigators attempted to reconstruct the sequence of events and decisions that occurred on the fire. However, their efforts were hampered by the short timeframe allocated for the report and difficulties associated with getting witnesses to talk objectively about a fire that killed some of their closest friends.
One year after the original report was published, different theories were still being proposed to explain the specific fire behavior. These theories included speculation about the source of the fire in the West Drainage. For example: was it caused by rolling debris, general dowhill fire spread, or spotting? Rumors of arson even surfaced. Other theories postulated the buildup and explosion of a cloud of combustible gases that killed the firefighters.
Ted Putnam, a Forest Service expert on firefighter entrapments and a member of the original accident investigation team, found the position of the bodies and gear to be significantly different from what he had observed on any previous entrapments. This generated in his mind questions about the fire behavior leading up to the entrapments. These questions and those associated with the various fire behavior theories led Putnam to ask fire researchers to visit the site of the South Canyon Fire and work with him to better understand the fire’s behavior.
After a visit to the South Canyon Fire site in August 1995, the group organized an informal team to reconstruct the fire behavior in greater detail than the original accident investigation report.
The original accident investigation report presented important and timely information, but the investigators were limited by time constraints. We have had a much longer time to review all the original witness statements and personally talk with many of the witnesses in considerable detail. The process entailed much more time than originally planned. But, because we had no time limitations, we were able to determine details not covered in the earlier reports.
This report is not meant to replace any of the previous work by the original investigation teams. Rather, our objective is to provide a thorough account of the fire behavior. As with any effort aimed at reconstructing an incident involving humans and complex physical phenomena, it is virtually impossible to know the sequence of events with absolute surety. This report presents what we consider to be the most probable fire behavior scenarios given the available information and current state of fire behavior knowledge. We do not address related issues such as human behavior factors or the ability of currently available fire models to predict extreme fire behavior. These other issues, while certainly germane to wildland fire management and firefighter safety, are left for future studies. Our primary objective is to develop information to help firefighters recognize potentially dangerous conditions, thereby preventing future accidents.
The Authors, September 1998
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