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Local Staff Ride Archive

Staff Ride to the South Canyon Fire

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On July 6, 1994, the South Canyon Fire caused the death of 14 firefighters, 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

On July 2nd and 3rd dry lightning storms ignited 40 new fires in the Grand Junction District, including the South Canyon Fire. The District set priorities for initial attack with highest priority given to fires threatening life, residences, structures, utilities, and fires with greatest potential for spread. All firefighting resources on the Grand Junction District were committed to the highest priority fires; the South Canyon Fire was not one of the highest. On July 4th, there was a shortage of resources for initial attack throughout the western slope of Colorado.

Starting on July 5th initial attack and extended attack resources were assigned to the South Canyon Fire as they became available. During the first few days the fire spread by backing downhill, on July 6th the winds and fire activity began to increase. At 3:20 p.m. on July 6th a dry cold front moved across the fire area. At 4:00 p.m. the fire crossed the bottom of the West Drainage. It soon spotted back across the drainage to the east side beneath the firefighters and moved onto steep slopes and into dense, highly flammable drought-stressed Gambel Oak brush. Within seconds a wall of flame raced up the hill toward the firefighters on the west flank fireline. Failing to outrun encroaching flames, 12 firefighters perished in close proximity to the west flank fireline 240 feet below the ridge. Two helitack crew members on the top of the ridge also died when they tried to escape the fire to the northwest. The remaining 35 firefighters on the South Canyon Fire survived by escaping down the East Drainage or by deploying their fire shelters at another location.

The follow-up actions to the South Canyon Fire led to higher training standards, an increased emphasis on weather information and fire danger recognition, the study of human factors in wildland firefighting, and interagency standards for fire operations.

The South Canyon Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Sue Curd - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Chris Farinetti - Bureau of Land Management/USFS - Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit
  • Robert Holt - U.S. Forest Service - Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew
  • Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Shawna Legarza - U.S. Forest Service - San Juan National Forest
  • Todd Richardson - Bureau of Land Management/USFS - Montrose Interagency Fire Management Unit
  • Randy Skelton - U.S. Forest Service - Black Hills National Forest
  • Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center

Special thanks to:

  • Kim Bang - Bureau of Land Management - Colorado State Office Training Specialist
  • Eric Carlson - Lt. Col. U.S. Marine Corps (Retired)
  • Linde Gardner - Bureau of Land Management - Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit
  • Gary Helming - Bureau of Land Management - Colorado State Office Assistant Training Specialist
  • Eric Hipke - Bureau of Land Management - Boise Smokejumpers
  • Ron Marley - Shasta College Fire Science Program
  • Tony Petrilli - U.S. Forest Service - Missoula Technology Development Center
  • Alex Roberston - U.S. Forest Service - Ochoco National Forest

Photo support provided by:

  • Engine 608 - White River National Forest (Nathan Goodacre, Joel Hendrickson, Bonnie Konczal, Mike Ottosen)