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South Canyon Fire

William Teie Report to OSHA — 1994

6 Minutes for Safety — 2009

Fire Behavior Report, 1998

Cover & Dedication

Executive Summary & About the Authors

Preface & Contents


Fire Behavior Overview

Fire Environment

Fire Chronology

Fire Behavior Discussion



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


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




Fire Behavior Overview 3
        Summary of Critical Factors Influencing the Fire Behavior 6
Fire Environment
  Topography 7
  Fuels 13
  Weather 16
Fire Chronology
  July 2 to Evening of July 5—Low Intensity Downslope Spread
  July 5, 2230 to July 6, 1530—Continued Downslope Spread
  July 6, 1530 to 1600—Double Draw Crown Fire Runs and Spot Fire on Main Ridge 28
  July 6, 1600 to 1603—Fire Crosses West Drainage
  July 6, 1603 to 1609—Fire Moves Up West Drainage 32
  July 6, 1609 to 1610—Fire on West Flank 35
  July 6, 1610 to 1611—Fire Below West Flank Fireline 38
  July 6, 1611 to 1614—Firefighters on West Flank Fireline Overrun 39
  July 6, 1614 to 1623—Helitack Firefighters Overrun 46
  July 6, 1622 to 1830—Smokejumpers Deploy in Shelters on Lunch Spot Ridge 46
  July 6, 1830 to July 11—Search and Rescue, and Fire Burns to
Glenwood Springs
Fire Behavior Discussion 51
  Fire in South End of West Drainage
  Winds Push Fire into Bowl 54
  Fire Transitions to Gambel Oak Canopy 54
  Fire on West Flank 56
Appendix A: Glossary 67
Appendix B: Chronology, Fire Behavior, Weather, Distances, Firefighter Travel Rates, and Fire Spread Rates 69
  Chronology, Fire Behavior, and Weather
  Firefighter Travel Rates
  Fire Spread Rates 80
Appendix C: Mesoscale Meteorological Model 81

The use of trade or firm names in this publication is for reader information and does not imply endorsement by the US Department of Agriculture or any product or service

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