20 Years Later, Legacy of a Deadly Colorado Wildfire Endures

The South Canyon Fire killed 14 firefighters and changed how wildfires are fought. Then last year in Arizona, tragedy struck again.

Twenty years ago, at 4 p.m. on July 6, a wave of flame swept along a ridge on Colorado's Storm King Mountain, killed 14 firefighters, and became a benchmark for wildland firefighting with repercussions that continue to this day.

On Sunday, firefighters from across the nation will gather at the site of what became known as the 1994 South Canyon Fire, about seven miles west of the resort town of Glenwood Springs in central Colorado, to mark the anniversary and take stock of its legacy.

For many of the specially trained crews that battle mountain wildfires in the American West, it was a blaze that made it more acceptable for firefighters to speak up or even decline assignments they consider too dangerous—once a rare occurrence that could result in a firing or ostracism in a profession that requires aggressive, type A personalities. No official report articulated that change, but among many firefighters it was an understood lesson of South Canyon.

The South Canyon blaze, which scorched 2,115 acres, accelerated technical advances in battling wildfires, from a new generation of fire shelters—small, protective "mummy" bags carried by firefighters that can be their defense of last resort from flames—to improved communications. "Immediately, we all had radios," said one South Canyon survivor, Eric Hipke.

South Canyon also sparked more scrutiny of fire officials' decision-making and strategies in battling deadly fires, and led to changes in the National Weather Service's fire weather forecasting division, which doubled its number of fire weather forecasters and found ways to deliver up-to-the-minute weather information—including crucial details about wind, which can fuel a fire and its direction—to forecasters in the field. (Related: "Overwhelming Cause of California Wildfires: Humans.")

After South Canyon, "incident meteorologists became rock stars," said Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist whose accurate prediction of a dangerous weather shift during the South Canyon Fire never reached the firefighters on the mountain.

It's widely accepted within the firefighting community that these and other lessons of the South Canyon Fire have saved lives during the past two decades. Even so, the dangers of fighting wildfires in the hot, dry summer remain real.

On June 30 last year, a well-predicted storm with high winds turned the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona back on itself, and flames overwhelmed and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a crew from nearby Prescott specially trained to battle brush fires. It was the greatest loss of life for a U.S. wildland fire crew in a single event in more than a century, since a blaze called the Big Burn of 1910 charred more than three million acres in Montana, Idaho, and Washington state, killing an estimated 78 firefighters.

A Similar, Even Deadlier Fire

The circumstances that led to the deaths on Yarnell Hill were hauntingly similar to those in South Canyon.

Both cases involved well-trained and aggressive firefighters: smoke jumpers, hotshots, and "helitacks" in South Canyon; hotshots on Yarnell Hill. Smoke jumpers parachute into fire zones, helitacks arrive by helicopter, and hotshots most often by bus or on foot. All three categories of firefighters must be prepared to battle rapidly spreading wildland fires wherever they occur.

Both fires were started by lightning, were not fought all-out at first, and threatened homes and towns. Severe storms that triggered the fatal runs of both fires were accurately predicted, but with only minutes to spare. The crucial forecasts then ran into communication foul-ups and did not reach the vulnerable crews in time, if at all. The fatal blasts of each fire occurred at the worst time of day for fire: late afternoon on days with high temperatures, low humidity, and tricky winds.

In South Canyon and on Yarnell Hill, firefighters waited too long before trying to escape. In both cases, supervisory personnel were handing over duties to a more qualified command team, a normal procedure as fires grow more complex, so there was a lack of immediate oversight and firefighters were pretty much on their own. In both cases, the fire crews were trapped in narrow canyons that magnified the effects of fire.

So why didn't the lessons from South Canyon prevent the tragedy on Yarnell Hill?

Eric Marsh, the supervisor of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew that was on Yarnell Hill, was known as a strong, magnetic leader, but he tolerated and even encouraged discussion and dissent. Several years ago, after fighting a fire on the Front Range of Colorado, Marsh had made a long detour and led his crew on a visit to the South Canyon Fire memorial.

"We're going to remember this experience and never let it happen to us," a member of the crew who was not with Marsh's team for the Yarnell Hill Fire recalled thinking at the time about the lessons of the 1994 blaze—including the importance of avoiding life-threatening situations while battling a wildfire.

But on Yarnell Hill last year, it did happen to Marsh's crew.

The reasons that 19 members of Marsh's hotshots crew left a relatively safe ridgeline and headed for a safety zone they never reached will never be explained fully, because none survived. But the fire's threat to Yarnell was likely a factor, based on fragmentary communications to and from the hotshots. From the crew's vantage point, the fire's threat to homes and people in Yarnell was visible. Members of the crew photographed the fire as it turned toward the town, where 126 homes and other structures eventually were lost.

The crew members watched as a storm turned the escalating fire in their direction. They headed down into a box canyon toward a safety zone, a ranch complex they could see in the valley below that appeared to be far closer than it actually was, an optical illusion reported by others who later retraced the crew's steps.

With barely more than 600 yards to go before reaching the ranch, the hotshots were met by flames roaring up the canyon. They used chainsaws and hand tools to clear a zone where they could deploy their fire shelters.

"I'm here with Granite Mountain Hotshots, our escape route has been cut off," Marsh radioed, fighting to control his voice. "We are preparing a deployment site, and we are burning out around ourselves in the brush, and I'll give you a call when we are under the sh... the shelters."

The Yarnell fire is now the focus of a wrongful-death lawsuit brought by family members of a dozen of the firefighters. The families claim that Arizona and Yavapai County officials were negligent in managing the response to the blaze, allegations the officials deny.

"A Deep, Deep Blessing"

In Colorado during the past two decades, the South Canyon Fire site on Storm King Mountain has become a shrine to the 14 firefighters who died there. A long, steep, and well-worn trail leads to the crosses that mark the spots on the mountain where they died. Survivors, families of the fallen, and firefighters who go there often are joined on the mountain trek by others who come out of simple curiosity or to pay respects.

As the 20th anniversary approached, Gary McCaleb, a firefighter who knew Don Mackey, one of those killed, visited the site for the first time and reported on social media that "it was a deep, deep blessing to be able to go to the monument; to walk the trail, to at long last let some of the deep, damned grief and loss be left behind in tear-stained dust."

Visitors to the site place caps, T-shirts, loose change, and religious medals on and around the crosses, the same sort of mementos found at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When the South Canyon Fire exploded into a blowup, a sudden burst of flame that sweeps all before it, there were 49 firefighters scattered across an area later known as Hell's Gate Ridge, which extends like a mighty arm of Storm King Mountain. Mackey, the smoke jumper in charge, directed one group to safety. He then faced a daunting choice: Stay with the group headed for safety, or hike back into dense brush to check on a dozen firefighters who were digging and cutting a fireline, a trench about 18 inches wide, to try to contain the flames. He turned back to join the firefighters in the brush, an act of selflessness that became known in the wildland fire community as a "Don Mackey moment."

With fire below him in the canyon, Mackey's boots ground into loose shale as he power-hiked to catch the endangered firefighters, who had seen the fire erupt in the gulch below them and had turned back, heading away from the flames along the fireline they previously had cleared. Mackey caught up to them where the line turned 90 degrees upward, toward the ridgetop.

Hipke, a survivor, remembers flames "curling and whipping" behind them. The group paused when two smoke jumpers in the lead—Jim Thrash and Roger Roth—halted. Thrash looked at Roth and asked, "Shelters?" He was asking whether the crew members should get under their fire-resistant shelters, or perhaps use them as shields as they continued on.

Hipke, right behind them, did not stop. He ran for it. As he powered up the side of the ridge, a billowing gust of extreme heat, followed by flame, caught him just yards from the top, slammed him to the ground and burned his hands to shreds. Hipke managed to struggle to his feet and hurtle over the ridgetop to safety. Mackey, Thrash, Roth, and nine others, all members of the Prineville Hotshots from Prineville, Oregon—Kathi Walsleben Beck, Tamera Jean Bickett, Scott Alan Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Douglas Michael Dunbar, Terri Ann Hagen, Bonnie Jean Holtby, Rob Johnson, and Jon R. Kelso—did not make it out.

Two helitacks, Richard Kent Tyler and Robert E. Browning, Jr., were manning a helicopter landing zone on the ridgetop when the fire exploded. Once they saw the flames erupt, they hiked along the ridgetop seeking a place where their helicopter could pick them up, but they too were caught by flames and killed. The remaining 35 firefighters on the mountain survived, several with relatively minor burns.

Hipke's injuries healed, and he returned to fighting fires as a smoke jumper a few months later. Fifteen years later, he became an audiovisual specialist for the U.S. Forest Service and began thinking about making a fire-training video about the South Canyon Fire. He did so this year, in time for the 20th anniversary. The video is available on YouTube.

A key lesson from the video: Firefighters in charge "should listen to everyone on the crew," Hipke said. "That's not the way it used to be."

And fire crews, Hipke said, should be more aggressive in voicing their concerns about dangerous situations. During the South Canyon Fire, he said, he and other firefighters failed to tell Mackey that they were worried about venturing so far into dense brush without a sure way out.

"As workers we want to work, so we shut up," Hipke said.

"Extreme" Fires Increasingly Common

In the two decades since the South Canyon Fire, at least two things have made firefighting more treacherous: More people have moved into previously unpopulated forests and brushlands, and fires have become more extreme, in part because of years of heat and drought. The term "extreme fire" is now used to describe fires that behave beyond the bounds of past experience. (Related: "Why Big, Intense Wildfires Are the New Normal.")

"I've never seen fire behavior like this before" has become a common refrain of seasoned firefighters. Extreme fires are characterized not necessarily by huge acreage burned, but by the dangerous alignment of violent weather, drought and heat, proximity to homes, and fast-burning vegetation. Adding to the problem is forest management that has a troubled record of trying to impose a healthy mix of fire suppression, deliberate burning, thinning, and logging in the face of the violent nature of some fires, amid a changing scientific and regulatory environment.

Even as the firefighting world changed after the South Canyon Fire, the federal, state, and local agencies with wildland fire responsibilities have struggled to address issues posed by the rising number of homes under threat. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 32 percent of all housing in the nation, or roughly 37 million units, is on lands where "humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel."

The threat is not always imminent—in Connecticut, for example, two-thirds of all lands are classified as "intermix" zones, but there is no major wildland fire problem. The vulnerable West, however, has seen an influx of millions of homes in recent decades into zones that are threatened. And despite efforts to educate homeowners with catch-phrase programs such as "Prepare, Stay, and Defend," "Living With Fire," "Survivable Space," and others, there is no consensus regarding how much risk firefighters should take in battling wildfires when homes are present.

"We don't know what the mission really is," said Kevin Erickson, a South Canyon Fire survivor and former firefighter.

Today, there is broad agreement in the firefighting community that the Yarnell Hill blaze should have been attacked more vigorously and contained before the fire became so deadly. In the wake of Yarnell Hill, various studies of the tragedy also have cited familiar themes in explaining the damage: drought that made brush particularly dry, communications failures, fire crews that could have been safer if they had been less aggressive.

But to Tom Shepard, who was the superintendent of the Prineville Hotshots crew that lost nine members to the South Canyon Fire, that blaze has left a positive legacy as well.

"It took 15 years for me before I went back up and walked that hill," Shepard said on Hipke's video. "I didn't know how I was going to react to that. Needless to say, it was an emotional time for me." Of firefighters today, Shepard said, "If they see something they don't understand, something out of whack, they're encouraged to speak up. It takes 20 people to run a hotshot crew. Not just one, it takes 20.

"Everybody's got a voice."

John N. Maclean is the author of Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire and other books on wildland fire.

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