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

The Authors, Acknowledments, and Preface

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 the University 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.


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.


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

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: The Authors, Acknowledments, and Preface: 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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