On the afternoon of July 2, 1994, lightning struck Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs,
Colorado, igniting a fire that claimed the lives of 14 fire fighters and burned for 8 days. Named the “South Canyon Fire,” this incident is the most deadly wildland fire in the United States since the 1953 Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest which claimed the lives of 15 fire fighters.
The fire burned for several days, and during that period, suppression resources were gradually committed to the fire. On afternoon of July 6, there were 49 fire fighters on the mountain. These fire fighters included hotshot*, smoke jumper and helitack** crews. Late that afternoon, a passing weather front caused wind speeds to increase and cause high wind gusts. Shortly after 4:00 p.m., the fire “blew out”. Flame heights were over 100 feet, and the flame front was moving at more than ten feet per second (7+ mph).
Nine of the smoke jumpers apparently deployed their fire shelters in a previously burned area and survived. Nine hotshots and three smoke jumpers who were working the fireline attempted to reach their safe area when the blow out occurred. The rapidly spreading fire quickly overran them, killing all twelve fire fighters. Fire fighters who were on the ridge saw the fire spread across the mountain’s southwest face towards their position. The rapidly spreading flame front was only seconds away from them when they retreated down the ravine on the east side of the ridge. All of these fire fighters were able to escape to a highway below the mountain. Two helitack fire fighters also saw the approaching flame front. Rather than retreating down the ravine, these fire fighters ran the ridge in a northeasterly direction. They were trapped in a small ravine where they died.
For more information on this report NFPA Fire Investigation. To learn more about firefighter fatalities in the U.S. NFPA Fire Analysis and Research. Visit the Firewise Communities for more infomation on wildfire preparedness.