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South Canyon Fire
1994


6 Minutes for Safety — 2009


Fire Behavior Report, 1998

Cover & Dedication

Executive Summary & About the Authors

Preface & Contents

Introduction

Fire Behavior Overview

Fire Environment

Fire Chronology

Fire Behavior Discussion

Conclusions

References

Appendix A

Appendix B

Appendix C


Report of the South Canyon Fire Accident Investigation Team, August 17, 1994

USFS shield logoFire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado


Executive Summary

Lightning ignited the South Canyon Fire on the afternoon of July 2, 1994. For the next 48 hours, the fire burned downslope in the leaves, twigs, and cured grasses covering the ground surface. By 1200 on July 4 the fire had burned approximately 3 acres. It continued to spread downslope through the day on July 5, covering approximately 50 acres by the end of the day. General fire activity consisted of low intensity downslope spread with intermittent flareups and short duration upslope runs in the fire’s interior. The fire remained active through the night covering approximately 127 acres by morning on July 6.

On July 6 the fire continued to burn downslope through the surface fuels. At approximately 1520 a dry cold front passed over the area. Winds in the bottom of the drainage immediately west of the ignition point were estimated to be from the south (upcanyon) at 30 to 45 miles per hour. About 1555 several upslope fire runs occurred in the grass and conifers on the west-facing slope near the southwest corner of the fire’s interior. Shortly after the crown fire runs, witnesses observed fire in the bottom of the drainage, directly west of the ridgetop ignition point. Pushed by the upcanyon winds, the fire in the drainage spread rapidly north. As this fire spread north and east, fuel, slope, and wind conditions combined to result in sustained fire spread through the live green Gambel oak canopy. The fire began burning as a high-inten-sity fast-moving continuous front. We estimate that the fire moved north up the drainage at about 3 feet per second. Steep slopes and strong west winds triggered frequent upslope (eastward) fire runs toward the top of the ridge. These upslope runs spread at 6 to 9 feet per second. A short time later the fire overran and killed 14 firefighters.

The South Canyon Fire tragically demonstrates the fire behavior that can occur given the appropriate combination of influencing factors. While fire behavior during the afternoon of July 6, 1994, can be characterized as extreme, it was normal and could be expected given the environmental conditions. Similar alignments of fire environment factors and the resulting fire behavior are not uncommon. The uncommon and tragic fact associated with this fire was that 14 firefighters were entrapped and killed by it.

This study focuses on two events: the blowup or transition from surface fire to a fire burning through the shrub canopy, and the fire behavior in the area identified as the West Flank that resulted in the deaths of 14 firefighters.

We identify three major factors that contributed to the blowup on the afternoon of July 6, 1994. The first was the presence of fire in the bottom of a steep narrow canyon. Second, strong upcanyon winds pushing the fire up the canyon and upslope. Third, the fire burning into the green (not previously underburned) Gambel oak canopy.

We have drawn a number of discussion points from the analysis. Some of these points will be readily apparent to firefighters. Others may be less evident. We believe that all are important. They are:

  • Topography can dramatically influence local wind patterns.

  • Vegetation and topography can reduce firefighter’s ability to see a fire or other influencing factors.

  • Current and past fire behavior often does not indicate the potential fire behavior that could occur.

  • The longer a fire burns and the larger it gets the greater the likelihood of high-intensity fire behavior at some location around the perimeter.

  • The transition from a slow-spreading, low-intensity fire to a fast-moving, high-intensity fire often occurs rapidly. This seems to surprise firefighters most often in live fuels.

  • Escape route effectiveness should be considered in relation to potential maximum-intensity fire behavior rather than past or present fire behavior.

  • The underburned Gambel oak did not contribute to the blowup. It was significant in that it did not provide a safety zone.

  • Smoke can significantly reduce the firefighter’s abilities to sense changes in fire behavior.

Rocky Mountain Research Station
324 25th Street
Ogden, UT 84401


The Authors

Bret W. Butler is a Research Mechanical Engineer in the Fire Behavior Research Work Unit at the Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Intermountain Fire Science Laboratory in Missoula, MT. His research focuses on fundamental heat and combustion processes in wildland fire. Applications for his research include fire behavior models, links between fire behavior and effects, and firefighter safety. He came to the Forest Service in 1992 after receiving a Ph.D. degree in mechanical engineering from Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, where he studied energy transport in particle laden flames.

Roberta A. Bartlette is a Forester at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, MT, where she began working in 1968. She has been involved in studies of fuel beds, smoldering combustion, and fire behavior of both laboratory and wildland fires. Recent work includes studies in the use of satellite remote sensing to assess fire potential in wildland vegetation and the use of Geographic Information Systems to document wildfire growth. She has a B.A. degree in zoology and an M.S. degree in forestry from the University of Montana.

Larry S. Bradshaw is a Meteorologist for the Fire Behavior Research Work Unit at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, MT. He received a B.S. degree in meteorology from the University of Utah in 1975. From 1975 to 1992, Larry was with Systems for Environmental Management, a nonprofit research organization located in Missoula. Since joining the Forest Service in 1992, he has specialized in the development and application of climatology to fire management problems and has authored several nationally available computer programs in the field.

Jack D. Cohen is a Research Physical Scientist for the Fire Behavior Research Work Unit at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, MT. He has worked on wildland fire issues in Montana, Colorado, California, and Georgia since 1972. His fire research experience includes prescribed fire, fire danger rating, fire behavior, and the wildland/urban interface. His operational fire experience includes firefighting, fire behavior analyst assignments, and prescribed fire lighting supervision. He has a B.S. degree in forest science from the University of Montana and an M.S. degree in bioclimatology from Colorado State University.

Patricia L. Andrews is a Research Physical Scientist in the Fire Behavior Research Work Unit at the Intermountain Fire Sciences Laboratory in Missoula, MT. She has been a member of the work unit since 1973 and was Project Leader from 1992 to 1996. She was primary developer of the BEHAVE fire behavior prediction system. Recent work includes fire growth simulation and analysis of fire danger rating systems. She has a B.A. degree in mathematics and chemistry from Montana State University at Billings, and an M.A. degree in mathematics and computer science from theUniversity of Montana.

Ted Putnam is an Equipment Specialist at the USDA Forest Service Missoula Technology and Development Center. He started working for the Forest Service in 1963 and spent 3 years on District fire crews, 8 years as a smokejumper, and 3 years as a supervisory smokejumper. He has been working at the Missoula Technology and Development Center since 1976. In 1977 he received a Ph.D. degree in experimental psychology with a major in learning and minor in mathematics from the University of Montana. He is now responsible for developing wildland firefighter protective clothing, and fire shelters, including training materials, and has been actively involved in wildland fire entrapment investigations since 1976. He is a member of two National Fire Protective Association standards setting committees for protective clothing and equipment.

Richard J. Mangan has been the Fire and Aviation Program Leader at the USDA Forest Service Missoula Technology and Development Center since 1989. His major responsibilities include fire equipment development, wildland firefighter personal protective equipment, and smokejumper activities. Dick serves on the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Fire Equipment and Safety and Health working teams, and is chair of the National Fire Protection Association 1977 Technical Committee (wildland fire personal protective equipment). He is red-card qualified as an Operations Section Chief I, and serves as Operations Chief on a National Type 1 Overhead Team. Dick has a B.S. degree in forestry from Humboldt State University, and more than 20 years experience on Ranger Districts and National Forests in Oregon and Washington; his last assignment before moving to Missoula was as Fire Staff Officer on the Ochoco National Forest in Prineville, OR.


Acknowledgments

We authors express our sincere appreciation to the many firefighters who endured repeated questions regarding often painful memories of the South Canyon Fire. Those deserving special credit for their patience include Sonny Archuleta, Sarah Doehring, Kevin Erickson, Dick Good, Eric Hipke, Dale Longanecker, Tony Petrilli, Michelle Ryerson, Bryan Scholz, Tom Shepard, and Bill Thomas. Special thanks go to Sue Husari for providing detailed information about the specific fire behavior. We appreciate the willingness of author John N. Maclean to share his interview notes with us. We also acknowledge the contribution of time and effort by the many technical reviewers and the Ogden Publications Office. Their comments led to a significantly improved manuscript. Finally, we acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice by the 14 firefighters who died during the South Canyon Fire. We hope that information gained from this work will protect the lives of other firefighters in the future.


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