Research Paper RMRS-RP-9
Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado

Fire Chronology

One of our major objectives was to estimate fire spread rates during the afternoon of July 6. This can be done using fire spread models or by calculating the distance and time separating successive fire perimeters. We chose the latter method; the original accident investigators used fire behavior models. Our method of analysis required that we develop a chronological history of the movement and location of individual firefighters. We used witness statements, followup interviews, onsite reenactment of firefighter movement, and calculations based on known physiological capabilities for hotshots and smokejumpers (Sharkey 1994). From the chronology and witness statements we constructed fire perimeter maps. These maps were then used to estimate fire spread rates.

The following is a narrative of firefighter movements and fire behavior on the South Canyon Fire for July 2 through July 6, 1994. Whenever possible, we describe events in chronological order.

The location names are the same as those in the original fire investigation report with some additional areas identified. Specific locations are identified in figure 17, an oblique photograph, and figure 18, a labeled topographical map. We use surnames when referring to individual firefighters. Some titles are used. Full name and affiliation are available in the South Canyon Fire investigation report.

Figure 17 -- View looking northeast over West Flank from east-facing ridge across the West Drainage. The West Flank Fireline can be seen starting at the Main Ridge above the Tree and passing down the hill over the Spur Ridge and across the slope to the Lunch Spot.

Figure 18 -- Topographical map showing locations important to narrative. Map is oriented south to north for use with figure 17. Dashed lines indicate firelines along West Flank and Main Ridge.

To make it easier for the reader to follow the chain of events surrounding the fire, we regularly refer to four separate firefighter groups (see table 1). These groups are identified by their general location at approximately 1530 hours on July 6. The groups are: (1) The Main Ridge Group, which consisted of part of the Prineville Interagency Hotshot crew and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service crew dispatched from Grand Junction, CO; they all worked primarily along the top of the Main Ridge. (2) The West Flank Fireline Group consisting of nine Prineville Hotshots, seven Forest Service smokejumpers, and two BLM/USFS firefighters who worked on the West Flank Fireline; three of the smokejumpers moved from the West Flank Fireline to the Main Ridge before the entrapment. (3) The Lunch Spot Ridge Group, nine Forest Service smokejumpers who were working primarily south of the Lunch Spot Ridge in the area of the Double Draws just prior to blowup; eight of this group eventually deployed in fire shelters on the upper portion of the Lunch Spot Ridge, the ninth remained near the Lunch Spot. (4) The two helitack crewmembers (one Forest Service and one BLM) make up the fourth group. A helicopter pilot was over the fire a portion of the time.

Table 1 -- Personnel roster and position at time of blowup.

Reconstruction of the fire position and spread rates required that we accurately determine each group's location and activity. Specific times are included in the narrative to indicate the sequence of events and to communicate the speed at which the events occurred. These times were determined by linking elapsed times between events such as helicopter ferry times, reenactment and timing of specific firefighter movements, and human physiological calculations to two known clock times identified in the witness statements. The times presented in the narrative represent a "best fit estimate" and should not be taken as absolute. When estimating fire spread rates, the sequencing and relative time differences between events are of more importance than the absolute times. A great deal of fire and crew activity occurred simultaneously among and between the separate groups making chronological description of both the fire behavior and firefighter positions difficult. We have attempted to divide the narrative into geographical regions and have labeled paragraphs with the central location or group being discussed. We include in the narrative weather and fire behavior as described by firefighters at various locations.

The fire perimeters were developed from witness statements, time and distance measurements and estimates, and topographical, weather, and fuel information. Fire spread rates are estimated from elapsed times and distances between successive fire perimeters. Tables of event times, distances, firefighter travel rates, fire spread rates and reference sources are included in appendix B.

July 2 to Evening of July 5 -- Low Intensity Downslope Spread

Lightning ignited the South Canyon Fire on the afternoon of July 2, 1994, near the southernmost point on the Main Ridge. The fire was reported to the county sheriff at 1030 and to the BLM district office at 1100 on July 3, 1994. The fire burned primarily in the open pinyon-juniper fuel type, backing downslope in cured annual and perennial grasses with occasional upslope runs and torching. It grew to 11 acres by the evening of July 4 (fig. 19).

Figure 19 -- Fire perimeters through morning of July 6, 1994 (adapted from original Accident Investigation Report). The 0930 perimeter is adapted from Mackey's map drawn during morning recon flight. The July 4 and July 5 perimeters are based on video interpretation by the Investigation Team using Bell's video (Bell 1994).

The fire burned through the night of July 4, growing to 29 acres by 0800 on July 5. It continued to spread down the slope in the surface fuels beneath the pinyon-juniper and Gambel oak through the day on July 5. The direction of spread was mostly to the north and west. Burning was not continuous and many unburned islands of fuel remained.

On July 5 seven BLM firefighters, including Incident Commander Blanco, walked into the fire from the East Drainage. They cut a helispot (H-1) and began direct downhill fireline construction. About 1500 an airtanker made a retardant drop on the fire burning on the steep rocky slope above the interstate highway. The BLM firefighters left the fire at 1730 to refurbish their equipment. They hiked out the West Drainage.

At approximately 1745, eight smokejumpers parachuted to the Drop Zone. Jumper-in-Charge Mackey later radioed Incident Commander Blanco that the fire was burning actively and had crossed the fireline prepared by the BLM crew earlier that day. After collecting their gear, the smokejumpers built a fireline along the east flank of the fire until the terrain became too steep. By 2230 on July 5 the fire covered approximately 50 acres.

July 5, 2230 to July 6, 1530 -- Continued Downslope Spread

The fire continued to burn actively during the night, spreading as a surface fire downhill toward the West Drainage through the pinyon-juniper and grass and laterally to the north through an area covered with Gambel oak. The fire maintained a more continuous flaming front and was much more active through the night of July 5 and early morning of July 6 than it had been the previous night (Bell 1994). We attribute the increased fire activity to lower relative humidities than occurred on previous nights.

Between 0530 and 0600 on July 6, eleven BLM and Forest Service firefighters started hiking up the East Drainage to the fire. At 0800 the BLM/USFS crew constructed H-2, a helispot located about 1/4 mile north of H-1. Around 0845 Incident Commander Blanco and Jumper-in-Charge Mackey discussed strategy and tactics for the day. They decided to improve the fireline between H-1 and H-2 (using the BLM and Forest Service firefighters) and to start building a fireline along the fire's west flank (using the smokejumpers). At approximately 0930 they took a reconnaissance flight in the helicopter assigned to the fire. In a later interview the pilot, Dick Good, said that on this flight he noticed smoke low in the West Drainage (Good 1996). The fire perimeter map developed after the reconnaissance flight indicated that the fire covered about 127 acres (fig. 19). At 1027 eight more smokejumpers parachuted to the Drop Zone north of H-2. At 1130 the combined jumper crews started downhill direct fireline construction on the West Flank.

Flareups, small reburns, and slopovers occurred throughout the fire late in the morning. The figure 20 photograph, taken from Interstate 70, shows smoke from fire activity northwest of H-1 on the West Flank and also southwest of H-1 in the area near the Double Draws. At approximately 1135 a flareup on the West Flank Fireline ran approximately 120 feet up the slope to the top of the Main Ridge in a narrow, about 5 foot wide, run (South Canyon Report). This run prompted discussion to pull out of the West Flank fireline and ignited a spot fire that the firefighters on the Main Ridge worked to extinguish. Bucket drops of water from the helicopter cooled the flareup, and work on the fireline resumed. In response to a flareup in a tree located south of the Spur Ridge at about 1300, smokejumpers working near the Spur Ridge retreated 480 feet back along the fireline to a point near the Tree (South Canyon Report; Petrilli 1996). A water drop from the helicopter cooled the flareup, and the firefighters returned to the area where the fireline crossed the Spur Ridge. Smokejumper Rhoades cut down the tree that became the Stump reference point, and the firefighters resumed building the fireline.

Figure 20 -- Photograph taken from the interstate highway looking northeast toward west-facing side of Main Ridge. Photograph was taken by the Prineville Hotshot Superintendent as they were traveling to the fire late on the morning of July 6, 1994. Smoke behind light post on left is near West Flank Fireline. Smoke behind light post on right is near the Double-Draws.

Between 1230 and 1300, the helicopter ferried 10 of the Prineville Hotshots, including Hotshot Superintendent Shepard, from Canyon Creek Estates to H-2. Around 1330 nine of the hotshots, led by Squad Leader Kelso, were assigned to reinforce the smokejumpers constructing the West Flank Fireline. Shepard remained on the Main Ridge. The remaining 10 Prineville Hotshots remained at the helibase at Canyon Creek Estates. They noted an overcast sky and gusty winds around 1400. Between 1400 and 1430 Hotshot Foreman Scholz radioed Shepard three times to report gusty, erratic winds at the helibase and increased smoke low on the fire's west side. During one of the calls, Shepard responded that winds had increased on the Main Ridge.

Lunch Spot -- Between 1400 and 1430 many of the hotshots and smokejumpers working on the West Flank Fireline stopped for lunch on a small knoll midway up the Lunch Spot Ridge (thus the name Lunch Spot). Jumpers Thrash and Roth remained on the West Flank Fireline. At approximately 1445 Smokejumper Longanecker left to scout an area south of the Lunch Spot Ridge. He hiked southwest from the Lunch Spot into the Double Draws (South Canyon Report). At about 1510 Longanecker requested by radio that some smokejumpers come down and start building line around a hotspot that had flared up (South Canyon Report). The smokejumpers stated that they felt some concern about building new line when the fire was still active along the newly completed West Flank Fireline to the north. A few of the smokejumpers moved a short distance south and east into the northeast side of the Double Draws (see Petrilli Photo Point and Longanecker position in fig. 8). Longanecker requested and received a water drop on the hotspot. Witness statements indicate that as the winds increased so did the fire activity in the underburned pinyon-juniper south of the Lunch Spot Ridge and along the Main Ridge (South Canyon Report).

Main Ridge -- Around 1515 the helicopter ferried the remaining 10 Prineville Hotshots from Canyon Creek Estates to H-2. They were assigned to widen the fireline on the Main Ridge between H-2 and the Zero Point. West winds between H-2 and the top of the West Flank Fireline were strong enough that when the firefighters working on the Main Ridge tossed brush into the air, the wind carried it over the east side of the ridge (South Canyon Report). In contrast, about 300 feet away, some of the group stopped for a break near the Zero Point and noted that the winds were light, estimated to be less than 5 miles per hour (South Canyon Report). Fire activity in the underburned oak on the west side of the Main Ridge consisted of low intensity flaming and smoldering in the leaves and debris on the ground under the oak canopy with some torching of individual trees.

July 6, 1530 to 1600 -- Double Draw Crown Fire Runs and Spot Fire on Main Ridge

West Flank Fireline -- At about 1530 Smokejumper Mackey commented on the erratic winds. He sent Smokejumpers Erickson and Doehring to patrol the West Flank Fireline for rolling material and hotspots. The winds were increasing in speed (South Canyon Report). Mackey called the hotshots who were working near the Lunch Spot and told them to hold the line and improve the cup trench on the West Flank Fireline.

Main Ridge -- Hotshot Scholz left the Main Ridge and started down the West Flank Fireline carrying two 5 gallon containers of water (time, 1530). He noted that while winds were strong and gusty on the Main Ridge, they were relatively calm on the West Flank Fireline (Scholz 1995).

West Flank Fireline -- Jumper Hipke had left the Lunch Spot to work on the West Flank Fireline. The Prineville Hotshots and Smokejumpers Hipke, Thrash, Erickson, and Doehring were all working north of the point where the fireline drops off the Lunch Spot Ridge. We estimate that this group was spread along the fireline, approximately 1,450 to 1,880 feet down the fireline from the Zero Point (time, 1530).

Scholz, who was carrying the water containers down the line, met Roth at the Stump. Scholz helped Roth move a log off the line (about 1539). They talked, and then a few minutes later, Scholz headed back up the fireline toward the Main Ridge leaving the water containers for Roth to carry to the firefighters working farther southwest along the fireline (time, 1545). There was little wind, and the previously cloudy sky was clearing (Scholz 1995).

Erickson and Doehring hiked north along the fireline looking for hotspots. They met Roth at the Stump (approximately 1555).

Figure 21 -- Topographical map with crown fire runs in Double Draws identified by heavy red lines (time, 1555). Vectors show general wind flow over fire area.

Double Draws -- After the helicopter dropped water on a flareup in the Double Draws, Smokejumpers Petrilli, Thomas, and Shelton contoured southeast along the slope from the Lunch Spot (approximately 1545). Another five smokejumpers were scattered between the Lunch Spot and Petrilli, who stopped about 630 feet south and east of the Lunch Spot. A few minutes later Longanecker asked the incoming helicopter to drop another bucket of water on the flareup. At this time a flareup that had occurred on the Main Ridge fireline about 200 feet south of the Zero Point was spotting across the fireline. It was agreed that the next bucket of water should go to the Main Ridge (South Canyon Report; OSHA 1995).

Several of the smokejumpers had gathered near what we have designated the Petrilli Photo Point (fig. 21). From this location they could look southwest into the Double Draws and see the area where Longanecker was working. While the smokejumpers were at the Petrilli Photo Point, individual trees began to torch, and a narrow crown fire started burning up the slope located directly south across the Double Draws from them. This fire burned through the previously underburned Douglas-fir, pinyon, and juniper with estimated flame heights greater than 100 feet (about 1555). The smokejumpers stopped moving downhill (South Canyon Report). Three separate runs occurred in rapid succession (Petrilli 1996). Petrilli indicated that he and the others with him were surprised at the speed of these runs. Petrilli photographed this fire activity from his position (fig. 22). The photograph shows the crown fire run and smoke over the entire area.

Figure 22 -- Photograph of smoke in West Drainage near Double Draws at approximately 1555. Perspective is looking southwest from Petrilli Photo Point. Smokejumper Longanecker is identified. Note flames from crown fires burning in conifers south of the Double Draws.

Main Ridge -- When Scholz reached the Main Ridge, after leaving Roth, he noted that winds were strong, approximately 45 miles per hour (time, 1553). The sky was clear over the fire, but clouds were located over Storm King Mountain. Fire spotted across the Main Ridge Fireline at about 1554 (fig. 23a). When Helicopter Pilot Good attempted to drop water on the spot fire burning on the Main Ridge (around 1555), the winds caused the water drop to miss the fire (fig. 23b). The pilot later estimated the winds were blowing 35 miles per hour. As the pilot flew back to refill the water bucket he noticed fire activity increasing throughout the area (as demonstrated by increased flaming and smoking) and saw scattered inactive spot fires on the east--facing slope across the West Drainage north of the Lunch Spot Ridge. We believe that the spot fires seen by Good were near the bottom of the West Drainage west of the West Bench (fig. 24). Hearing firefighters over the radio talking about spot fires, Good did not report those he had seen (Good 1996).

Figure 23 -- (A) Photograph of spot fire burning on the Main Ridge south of the Zero Point at approximately 1553. Perspective is looking south from knob north of H-2. (B) Photograph of helicopter dropping first bucket of water on spot fire near Main Ridge at approximately 1555. Perspective is looking south from knob north of H-2. Note smoke on right side of picture over Double Draws, and winds blowing smoke and water to the left (east).

Figure 24 -- Topographical map showing fire south of Double Draws and starting to burn across the bottom of the West Drainage and toward the Bowl (approximate time, 1602). Red dots in West Drainage indicate approximate locations of inactive spot fires based on helicopter pilot Goods statements.

July 6, 1600 to 1603 -- Fire Crosses West Drainage

Main Ridge -- Short duration torching and runs through the vegetation canopy were occurring inside the fire perimeter. The BLM/U.S. Forest Service firefighter crew on the Main Ridge had been working to extinguish the spot fire located about 200 feet south along the Main Ridge from the Zero Point. The spot fire continued to burn on the east side of the Main Ridge Fireline (1600). The wind was strong enough that it blew Crewmember Byers hardhat off (South Canyon Report). Scholz called the Prineville crew members working on the Main Ridge Fireline near H-2 to move up (south) to help the BLM/U.S. Forest Service crew working on the spot fire.

Double Draws -- A few minutes after the crown fire runs south of the Double Draws, Petrilli saw smoke coming from the bottom of the West Drainage (1602). Fire was starting to burn north up the east-facing slope across the drainage from him (South Canyon Report; Petrilli 1996). Petrilli radioed Mackey about the fire across the drainage. Then he and the smokejumpers with him started back toward the Lunch Spot. The fire in the West Drainage quickly developed into a running flaming front 50 yards wide burning diagonally up the east-facing slope and up the West Drainage (South Canyon Report) (fig. 24). Petrilli estimated that winds at his location were blowing 35 miles per hour (time 1603). Longanecker heard a call for retardant (he thought it came from Mackey). The person making the call stated, "We have a real bad situation here" (South Canyon Report). Longanecker began moving toward the Lunch Spot, which he had identified as a safe area.

July 6, 1603 to 1609 -- Fire Moves Up West Drainage

West Drainage -- The winds blowing up the bottom of the West Drainage pushed the fire quickly through the fine fuels into the Bowl (about 350 feet north from the base of the Double Draws). Postfire inspection suggests that the Bowl contained a heavier concentration of vegetation than on the surrounding slopes. As the fire burned into the cured grasses, small shrubs, and standing live and dead trees in the bowl, the size and height of the smoke column over the fire increased.

Lunch Spot -- The smokejumpers, who had been observing the fire in the Double Draws, continued back to the Lunch Spot (about 5 minutes walking time). The fire on the east-facing slope across from them ran 770 feet to the top of the ridge and continued to burn north along the slope. Smokejumper Petrilli estimated the upslope winds at his location were blowing about 45 miles per hour (Petrilli 1995).

West Flank Fireline -- Smokejumper Hipke, who had been working on a hotspot about 100 feet north along the West Flank Fireline from the Lunch Spot, moved farther north around the hotshots in front of him and continued up the fireline (generally toward the northeast). He met Smokejumper Thrash at about 1603. Within a minute, Thrash and Hipke were joined by Smokejumper Roth, who had come down the line carrying the two water containers Hotshot Scholz had left with him. About 1604, Smokejumpers Hipke, Roth, and Thrash, and Hotshot Hagen, who was nearby, noticed the smoke column building over the West Drainage. After a short discussion the four of them started hiking northeast up the West Flank Fireline toward the Main Ridge. It appeared to them that the area around the Double Draws and Lunch Spot would be overrun first, so moving north up the West Flank Fireline was the only alternative (Hipke 1995). At the same time, Hotshot Kelso, who was working on the West Flank Fireline between Thrash and the Lunch Spot, radioed Shepard to inform him that "a spot fire [had] crossed the draw [West Drainage] below them" (South Canyon Report). Shepard told them "to get out of there" and go to the designated safety zone at H-1 (Scholz 1995; South Canyon Report). Kelso and the other hotshots working on the fireline were also moving northeast up the fireline by the time the three smokejumpers and Hagen started out the fireline (about 1605).

Main Ridge -- Noting the increased activity on the Main Ridge, the incoming helicopter, the strong winds, and Kelso's call, Scholz commented, "Things are getting complicated." Shepard and Blanco told the Main Ridge Group to go to H-1 (South Canyon Report; OSHA 1995). Hotshot Gray noted the time on his watch as 1604 and commented, "Remember this time" (South Canyon Report; Scholz 1995). Scholz told his group to wait for the incoming bucket drop (Scholz 1995). Many spot fires had developed on the Main Ridge. The firefighters who had been working on the Main Ridge abandoned their efforts to control them (Scholz 1995).

Helicopter Pilot Good estimates he was flying through westerly winds of 45 to 50 miles per hour on his return with the second bucket of water for the Main Ridge spot fire. Due to strong westerly winds, he had to circle around and approach the Main Ridge from the east. This time he hit the spot fire with the water drop (about 1605). The water cooled the spot fire sufficiently (fig. 25) for the firefighters to pass through it and move south, uphill toward H-1. As Good finished the water drop and started back to refill the bucket, he noted the large smoke column building over the Bowl. The smoke was blowing directly over his position above the Main Ridge. He was not able to see into the base of the column from his position. However, recognizing the change in the situation, he headed to the helibase at the Canyon Creek Estates subdivision to disconnect the bucket so he could return to ferry firefighters off the ridge (Good 1996).

Figure 25 -- Photograph taken shortly after the second water drop on Main Ridge at approximately 1601. Perspective is same as in figures 23a and b, looking south from top of knob north of H-2. Note column developing over West Drainage and significantly more smoke over west flank of fire than shown in photograph taken from same point approximately 10 minutes earlier.

Lunch Spot -- Mackey and the other smokejumpers who had been with Petrilli met on the Lunch Spot Ridge about 100 feet below the Lunch Spot. The smokejumpers were moving toward the Lunch Spot. Mackey told them there was a good "black" area farther up the Lunch Spot ridge and to go there. As the smokejumpers continued up the ridge, Mackey called to check on Longanecker's position. Longanecker replied, "We're in a safe zone" (1606) (South Canyon Report). After leaving the eight smokejumpers, Mackey continued across West Flank behind the hotshots and smokejumpers who were hiking up the West Flank Fireline to the Main Ridge.

West Flank Fireline -- As Smokejumpers Hipke, Roth, and Thrash neared the Stump, Hipke looked back to the southwest and saw fire burning in the bottom and up both sides of the West Drainage, the fire front was advancing north and was forming a "U" shape in the bottom of the West Drainage (fig. 26) (Hipke 1994).

Figure 26 -- Fire perimeter at 1607 as Smokejumper Hipke looked down canyon (southwest) from the Stump. Fire was burning on both sides of the West Drainage and below the West Flank Fireline.

The Tree -- Jumpers Doehring and Erickson met Smokejumper Archuleta near the Draw (450 feet below and west of the Zero Point). Archuleta had walked down the fireline from the Main Ridge. They moved up the fireline to the Tree located 200 feet below the Zero Point where BLM Firefighters Brixey and Haugh were working with a chain saw (1606). Brixey and Haugh shut off their saw. The three smokejumpers pointed out the smoke column over the West Drainage and relayed the message to move to the safety zone. Following a short discussion Archuleta, Doehring, and Brixey headed up the fireline toward the Main Ridge (1608). Erickson and Haugh remained at the Tree (South Canyon Report).

July 6, 1609 to 1610 -- Fire on West Flank

Smokejumper Mackey caught the firefighters hiking up the West Flank Fireline as they passed the Stump (about 1609). Using known values for walking speeds in rough terrain and distances along the fireline, we estimate that Mackey must have run to catch the last of the hotshots at this location. By this time the smokejumpers and hotshots were hiking in essentially one group, hereafter referred to as the West Flank Fireline Group. The group continued to follow the West Flank Fireline. They hiked over the Spur Ridge and then east up the fireline toward the Main Ridge.

West Flank Fireline -- The fire moved onto the West Bench. It rapidly increased in size, burning across a wide front. It was spreading north up the West Drainage and upslope on a path parallel to the Lunch Spot Ridge (approximately 1608).

As Smokejumper Hipke reached the top of the Spur Ridge he looked back and saw Mackey at the rear of the group (approximately 1609) (Hipke 1995). Behind Mackey the fire burned in a wide front above and below the West Flank Fireline (fig. 27). Hipke states that due to the height of the Gambel oak and the drainage topography, the firefighters had only brief glimpses of the fire burning behind and below them.

Figure 27 -- Fire perimeter at 1609 as Smokejumper Hipke looked south from point where fireline crested the Spur Ridge. The fire had crossed the southern portion of the West Flank Fireline. It was burning up the West Flank Fireline, north up the West Bench, and east to the Main Ridge. Hipke estimates that at this time the fire burning east up the slope was about two-thirds of the distance up the slope below H-1.

The Tree -- Firefighters Haugh and Erickson at the Tree could hear a loud roaring sound from the fire. They saw the first few smokejumpers in the group cresting the Spur Ridge and walking northeast along the West Flank Fireline toward them. They saw fire burning behind and below the West Flank Fireline Group. Erickson called Mackey and told him about the fire, Mackey did not respond (time, about 1610).

Main Ridge -- The firefighters hiking along the Main Ridge neared the rocky outcropping north of H-1. They saw fire nearly all the way up the slope below and to the west of them (estimated time 1609). Several firefighters near the front of the group felt they could not make it to the safety zone at H-1 before the fire reached the top of the ridge. This was the same fire run Hipke saw from the Spur Ridge. The terrain was steep, the firefighters were fatigued, and spot fires on the Main Ridge between them and H-1 were actively burning (South Canyon Report; OSHA 1995). Hotshot Scholz told the Prineville firefighters to "Reverse and move" - meaning to return the way they had come (Scholz 1995). BLM Squad Boss Ryerson also told her crew to go to H-2. Both crews turned back and began walking and running north down the Main Ridge toward H-2.

Hotshot Crewmember Navarro, intending to maintain his place near the end of the line, let others pass him. As he was looking south toward H-1 he saw Hotshots Valentine and Robertson. It appeared as if "they came running right out of the fire" (South Canyon Report; OSHA 1995). The two firefighters ran through fire, but it consisted of scattered, relatively short flames along the Main Ridge Fireline. The fires burning along the top of the Main Ridge behind (south of) the firefighters were several times taller than a person and burning on both sides of the Main Ridge Fireline. These larger flames were caused by the main fire cresting the ridge between the Rocks and H-1.

July 6, 1610 to 1611 -- Fire Below West Flank Fireline

Main Ridge -- As BLM Firefighter Brixey and Smokejumpers Doehring and Archuleta, who were hiking up the fireline from the Tree, neared the Zero Point, the first members of the Main Ridge Group passed them, heading toward H-2. Joining the Main Ridge Group, Archuleta, Doehring, and Brixey continued about 110 feet north along the Main Ridge. At this point Archuleta and Doehring moved west about 10 feet off the Main Ridge to a location where they could see southwest diagonally down the slope toward the fireline and lower part of the Spur Ridge. We have designated this location the Photo Point (fig. 6 and 7).

West Flank Fireline -- The West Flank Fireline group was approaching the Draw. Hipke stated that Thrash stepped off to the left of the fireline and said, "Shelter?" almost as a question and Roth stepped off to the right (estimated time 1610) (Hipke 1996). Hipke stepped past Thrash and Roth and continued a fast hike up the line.

The Tree -- Firefighters Haugh and Erickson remained at the Tree, shouting and waving at the West Flank Group to hurry. Erickson saw a spot fire on the West Bench. Later, Erickson identified the location of the spot fire to be about 1,000 feet in distance down the slope below the Tree and 190 feet above the bottom of the West Drainage (fig. 28). Erickson called to inform Mackey of the spot fire (South Canyon Report). Erickson stated, "The spot moved fast [north up the canyon]. I did not feel a perceptible change in winds. I could tell that they [the West Flank Fireline Group] were moving as fast as they could. At that time the lead guy and the group were 75 yards away. We were yelling at them to go faster. They looked tired and were not going fast. Thrash was in the lead and Mackey was second to last. They were in a close group." Erickson asked Haugh to pull out his camera. As Erickson looked through the viewfinder (about 1611) he saw the last three firefighters in the group with fire everywhere behind them (South Canyon Report). Because Erickson's camera was at the end of the roll of film, this attempted photograph had no film on which to be exposed.

Figure 28 -- Fire perimeter at 1610. The fire continued to spread up the West Drainage and east to the Main Ridge. Fire has reached top of Main Ridge near the Rocks. Smokejumper Erickson called Smokejumper Mackey to inform him of spot fire on north end of West Bench.

Main Ridge -- Archuleta and Doehring took four photographs from the Photo Point on the Main Ridge (fig. 29a-d). Their photos show the last three members of the West Flank Fireline Group coming over the top of the Spur Ridge (estimated time 1611). After taking the photographs, Doehring joined the firefighters heading north along the Main Ridge toward H-2.

Figure 29 -- Photographs taken at 1611 from Archuleta/Doehring Photo Point looking down (southwest) toward fireline and fire burning behind the Spur Ridge. The four photographs are arranged in chronological sequence.

Archuleta and Doehring's photographs show the fire burning upslope toward the Main Ridge immediately south of the Spur Ridge. It was later determined that these photographs were taken at essentially the same time, angle, and view that Erickson tried to photograph (Erickson 1996). From near H-2 Blanco called for air support from Grand Junction.

West Flank Fireline -- Approximately 100 feet beyond the point at which he had stepped past Roth and Thrash, Hipke looked back and saw the group following 20 to 30 feet behind him with Roth in the lead (1611). Ahead, through the brush, he could see Haugh and Erickson at the Tree waving for them to keep coming.

The Tree -- Immediately after Erickson attempted to take the photo he turned to follow Haugh. Haugh had gone up the fireline toward the Main Ridge and was no longer in view. Erickson looked back over his right shoulder and saw a wall of fire coming up the hill below the fireline (South Canyon Report). Our analysis indicates that this fire was burning upslope on the south side of the Spur Ridge. Erickson did not see Hipke who was climbing the fireline below him.

Witness statements and the photos taken by Archuleta and Doehring indicate that fire extended from the West Bench 800 to 900 feet northwest of and below the Tree, then south around the base of the Spur Ridge 400 feet southwest of the firefighters, and up the south side of the Spur Ridge to the top of the Main Ridge (South Canyon Report). Figures 28 and 30 show the approximate position of the fire front.

Figure 30 -- Fire perimeter at 1612. Fire is 400 ft south and 450 ft southwest of firefighters on West Flank Fireline. Main Fire has merged with spot fire and is burning up slope north of fireline. Concave shaped fire front begins to form around top (northeast) section of West Flank Fireline.

July 6, 1611 to 1614 -- Firefighters on West Flank Fireline Overrun

Main Ridge -- As they retreated north along the ridge, the Main Ridge Group passed through active spot fires burning along the Main Ridge Fireline. Several of the firefighters later stated that fire was burning on both sides of the ridge (South Canyon Report). Some indication of the severity of the situation is indicated by the fact that they abandoned the chainsaw fuel containers on both sides of the trail. The main fire was producing a loud roar (South Canyon Report). Hotshot Scholz said that they felt that the fire was moving north at a pace equal to theirs (Scholz 1995). As they passed the Zero Point, the air contained burning embers and smoke. Hotshot Navarro, who was near the back of the group, said that when he neared the Zero Point, "The fire was only on my left or west" (South Canyon Report). At this time, Scholz and some of the other firefighters dropped off the east side of the Main Ridge and followed a trail that contoured along the side of the ridge toward H-2. Some firefighters recall hearing chainsaw fuel containers exploding behind them.

After leaving the Photo Point, Archuleta moved south toward the Zero Point to make sure that none of the firefighters in the Main Ridge Group turned down the West Flank Fireline. As the last of the Main Ridge Group firefighters passed him heading toward H-2, Archuleta also started toward H-2 (about 1612) (South Canyon Report). About 80 feet north of the Zero Point, Scholz looked back to the south along the ridge and saw the fire curling over the Main Ridge behind a firefighter running down the trail toward him (Scholz 1995). The fire burning up the slope behind the Spur Ridge had crested the Main Ridge 200 feet south of the Zero Point.

Main Ridge Near H-2 -- Robertson, Archuleta, and Ryerson remained on the Main Ridge. Ryerson, who was ahead of Archuleta and Robertson, stated that as she neared H-2 there was heat, intense smoke, and sparks everywhere, and the fire was close on the west side (South Canyon Report ; Good 1996; OSHA 1995). As they moved along the Main Ridge toward H-2, Robertson and Archuleta could feel heat behind and to their left. The remaining chainsaws and fuel containers were abandoned north of H-2. The firefighters were told to go down into the East Drainage.

Zero Point -- Shortly after the last of the Main Ridge Group passed the Zero Point, BLM Firefighter Haugh, reached the top of the West Flank Fireline and continued a short distance over the ridge into the East Drainage. The heat was intense enough that Haugh received some first-degree burns (Husari 1996). Smokejumper Erickson, who followed shortly behind Haugh, received second-degree burns to his upper back, neck, and elbows (Hospital Report 1994).

West Flank Fireline -- Based on our reconstruction of crew and fire movement and interviews with witnesses, we estimate that Jumpers Thrash and Roth stopped near the Tree about the time Haugh and then Erickson reached the Zero Point. The rest of the West Flank Fireline group following in a line behind them stopped. We estimate that after a short hesitation, Hotshot Blecha stepped around the group, and continued up the hill. Our timeline places Hipke about 45 seconds behind Erickson. We estimate that Blecha followed about 40 seconds (100 feet) behind Hipke.

H-2 and the East Drainage -- Helicopter Pilot Good returned and hovered about 100 feet above and northeast of H-2 (between 1612 and 1613). He estimated his return time after dropping the water bucket at the subdivision to be 5 to 7 minutes (Good 1996; Hopf 1996; South Canyon Report). The pilot saw people running north along the Main Ridge and then moving off the ridge from a point south of H-2 down into the East Drainage. The pilot was unable to make radio contact with any of the firefighters. Winds were from the west and blowing harder than when the pilot had made the previous water drop on the Main Ridge. Grit and debris were blowing through the open cockpit doors. He could see fire burning along the top of the Main Ridge from H-1 to the intersection of the Spur Ridge and the Main Ridge. Flames were 150 to 200 feet high. Fire was burning 100 to 200 feet below (west) H-2. Fire had progressed north up the West Drainage and was spreading east toward the Saddle (Good 1996; OSHA 1995).

As the first members of the Main Ridge Group began descending into the East Drainage, Shepard, Blanco, and Helitack Crewmembers Tyler and Browning moved some red packs that had been left north of H-2 to a small depression nearer the helispot (approximately 1613). Shepard estimated that they only looked down for 20 seconds but were surprised when they looked up from moving the packs to find that the fire was nearly to H-2 (Shepard 1995). Smoke and burning embers were flying into the area and fusees with the gear at H-2 were igniting (Shepard 1995).

West Flank Fireline -- Using all of the available information, our best estimate of the fire location between 1612 and 1613 is shown in figures 30 and 31. Fire was burning upcanyon and upslope as a continuous front that stretched from the Rocks to the junction of the Main Ridge and the Spur Ridge then down the Spur Ridge across the north end of the bench and partially up the slope toward the Photo Point and H-2.

Figure 31 -- Fire perimeter at 1613. Fire is burning on three sides of the last section of the West Flank Fireline.

The fire burned quickly up the hill. Prineville Hotshot Scott Blecha died 120 feet from the top of the fireline. Prineville Hotshot Crewmembers Kathi Beck, Tami Bickett, Levi Brinkley, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, and Jon Kelso; and Smokejumpers Don Mackey, Roger Roth, and James Thrash were entrapped and died 200 to 280 feet below the Zero Point.

While Hipke hiked up the last section of the fireline he felt his arms and neck getting hot. He dropped his pulaski, which was later found 82 feet below the Zero Point, and tried to remove his fire shelter to use as a shield. Hot air and embers blew past him. He could feel his ears getting burned and it seemed to be getting hotter. His hardhat was on backwards, and the bill provided some protection to the back of his neck while he used his hands to shield his ears and face from the increasingly unbearable heat. He had difficulty getting the shelter out of its wrapper and dropped it 15 feet from the Zero Point when he tried to leap forward to escape the heat. As he jumped forward, hot air hit him forcibly from behind and he fell forward to the ground, yelling as he fell and catching his fall with his hands (estimated time 1614). After falling forward, he jumped back up and hiked across the top of the ridge, shielding his face and ears from the heat with his hands. Hipke, though burned on both sides, did not recall seeing fire as he hiked over the top of the Main Ridge. Figure 32 shows the location of the fire at this time. The shoulder straps on Hipke's backpack had melted or fallen off, leaving the pack hanging by its belt strap and bumping against the backs of his thighs (Hipke 1994). Reaching the east edge of the Main Ridge he unsnapped the backpack belt strap, left the pack, and ran down the steep slope into the East Drainage. Hipke suffered third-degree burns over 10 percent of his body including his hands, arms and elbows, buttocks, thighs, calves, right shoulder, face, and back of his head. He received lesser burns on his left side (Hospital Report 1994). A few hundred feet down the slope Hipke met Haugh and Erickson who wrapped the burned portion of his arms and hands in a T-shirt and poured water over the makeshift bandage. Together they moved down the East Drainage. They were the first firefighters to reach the Interstate highway (Hipke 1995).

Figure 32 -- Estimated fire position at 1614. Fire had reached Main Ridge from H-1 to Zero Point and was approaching H-2. Some firefighters were entering the East Drainage.

July 6, 1614 to 1623--Helitack Firefighters Overrun

As the fire approached H-2, Helitack Crewmembers Browning and Tyler headed toward the smokejumper Drop Zone located about 1,000 feet to the northeast (South Canyon Report). The helicopter pilot tried to make radio contact with the two helitack crewmembers; he could not see them and they did not respond to his radio calls. The high winds, air turbulence, smoke, and the approaching fire forced the helicopter to leave the area. Firefighters entering the East Drainage radioed and yelled for the two helitack crewmen to follow them down the drainage (OSHA 1995). Tyler and Browning replied that they needed to go up the hill-to "run the ridge" (OSHA 1995). It is not clear where the two firefighters were headed. Perhaps they felt the East Drainage to be unsafe, or they expected to be picked up by the helicopter that was flying over H-2 at this time.

Fire quickly engulfed the entire Main Ridge from the Rocks near H-1 to the smokejumper Drop Zone. A portion of the fire ran northeast across the saddle between H-2 and the Drop Zone, cutting the two helitack crewmen off from the East Drainage (fig. 33). This fire caused the firefighters below H-2 to turn and go straight down the East Drainage rather than follow a contour route toward the northeast (South Canyon Report; OSHA 1995).

Figure 33 -- Fire perimeter at 1618. Fire is burning along the Main Ridge from H-1 to the Smokejumper Drop Zone. It is also burning northeast across the saddle, cutting Helitack Crewmembers Tyler and Browning off from East Drainage (1618).

The helitack crewmembers were forced by the fire to go northwest from the Drop Zone toward a bare rocky outcropping. As they neared the rocky face, they encountered a 50 feet 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. Based on a reenactment of the travel time between the red bags near H-2 and the helitack fatality site, we estimate that the two firefighters reached the gulley and attempted to deploy their shelters between 1622 and 1623 (fig. 34). The postfire evidence suggests that the two firefighters, Robert Browning and Richard Tyler, were incapacitated and died when they were engulfed in hot air and smoke before they could fully deploy and enter their fire shelters.

Figure 34 -- Fire perimeters from blowup (1602) to 1623.

East Drainage -- Blanco, Shepard, and Scholz followed the Main Ridge Group down the East Drainage (approximately 1614 to 1615). They arrived at the Interstate between 1715 and 1730 (Scholz 1995).

July 6, 1622 to 1830--Smokejumpers Deploy in Shelters on Lunch Spot Ridge

Lunch Spot Ridge -- The eight smokejumpers hiking up the Lunch Spot Ridge reached their shelter deployment site at approximately 1619. They deployed in two groups, six nearest H-1 and two a short distance farther down the ridge. The deployment area had burned in previous days and was a short distance (235 to 430 feet) below the junction of the Main Ridge and Lunch Spot Ridge (H-1). Smokejumper Petrilli called Mackey over the radio about 1619 but did not receive a response. Petrilli checked his watch as they entered their shelters; the time was 1624. Over the next 45 minutes the eight smokejumpers felt heat from three separate fire runs that occurred about 500 feet south of them (Petrilli 1996).

Following Blanco's call for support, airtankers were dispatched to the fire from Grand Junction. They were off the ground around 1630 and were over the fire within 20 minutes. High winds and heavy smoke prevented the planes from getting near the fire. Photos and video (Bell 1994) taken from the heliport at the Canyon Creek Estates subdivision at about this time show a large smoke column building over the entire West Flank (fig. 35). The pilots spotted the shelters of the eight firefighters who deployed on the Lunch Spot Ridge below H-1 and dropped retardant around the deployment site (fig. 36). Smoke totally obscured the slopes north of the Lunch Spot Ridge. Because the smoke and high winds showed no signs of quickly abating, the airtankers were released (South Canyon Report).

Figure 35 -- Photograph taken from Canyon Creek housing subdivision looking east at smoke column. Note that the smoke columns show both the upcanyon winds above the West Drainage and the west winds blowing across the ridges.

Figure 36 -- Photograph taken from Canyon Creek Subdivision looking east at tanker plane dumping fire retardant near eight smokejumpers deployed on upper portion of the Lunch Spot Ridge.

Longanecker, who had hiked up the Lunch Spot Ridge, joined the eight smokejumpers near the top of the Lunch Spot Ridge as they emerged from their shelters (1800 to 1830). The fire had almost totally consumed the Gambel oak on the entire west-facing slope of the Main Ridge, leaving scattered, burned stobs. The area was cool enough to cross on foot, and the smokejumpers began looking for the other firefighters. Seeing objects that looked out of place with the surroundings near the top of the West Flank Fireline, some of the smokejumpers walked over to the area. There they found 12 firefighters who had died in the fire. After notifying the authorities of the fatalities, the nine smokejumpers hiked to H-2 to wait for the helicopter to ferry them off the mountain.

July 6, 1830 to July 11--Search and Rescue, and Fire Burns to Glenwood Springs

Archuleta, who had hiked out the East Drainage, joined 28 smokejumpers at the helibase at Canyon Creek Estates (directly west of the fire site). About 25 of the smokejumpers were ferried by helicopter to the Main Ridge to continue search and rescue operations. On the return trips, the helicopter ferried the smokejumpers who had sheltered on the Lunch Spot Ridge back to the helibase. Those searching for the two missing helitack crewmembers walked out the West Drainage after dark. The bodies of the two helitack crewmen were found on July 8, 1994.

The fire continued to spread eastward toward Glenwood Springs covering approximately 2,000 acres by nightfall. Maps of the fire perimeter made on July 10 indicate that the fire had burned about 2,115 acres (fig. 37). The fire was declared controlled on July 11, 1994.

Figure 37-- South Canyon Fire Day Shift Fire Map for July 10, 1994. This map shows the approximate final fire perimeter and fire size of 2,115 acres.

Main Page | Executive Summary | The Authors, Acknowledgements, and Preface
Introduction | Fire Behavior Overview | Fire Environment | Fire Chronology | Fire Behavior Discussion
Conclusions | References | App. A | App. B | App. C | Abstract | About RMRS
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Title: Fire Chronology: RMRS-RP-9 - Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado
Publish Date: February 5, 1999
Last Update:
December 22, 2005

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