Perspectives: before, during, and after the 1994 South Canyon Fire

As I pack to begin my journey to attend the 20-year commemoration of the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado, I am thinking back on video interviews with a couple of dozen firefighters who were either on the fire, or dealt with some of the fallout over the next 20 years. It is interesting and in some cases refreshing to see them speak out, sometimes bluntly, about how the safety culture of wildland firefighters has changed since South Canyon.

Every firefighter should see this first video, titled Everyone goes home published on YouTube on May 30, 2013. It includes an assortment of people with various degrees of involvement in the South Canyon Fire.

In the next video, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, 11 firefighters that survived tell their stories.

As a bonus, check out the excellent July 3 article at Oregonlive that includes video interviews with three survivors of the fire, Alex Robertson, Sarah Doehring, and Michelle Ryerson.

Post Independent: lessons learned after South Canyon Fire

South Canyon Fire
The blow-up at the South Canyon fire, July 6, 1994 between 1630 and 1700. The photo is from the report.

A newspaper based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the Post Independent, is publishing a series of articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire that occurred just outside of town. Today’s piece concentrates on the lessons learned following the deaths of the 14 firefighters. In spite of the fact that they quoted this writer, it is worth reading.

Below is a brief excerpt that quotes Bill Hannenberg, who in 1994 worked on the White River National Forest in Meeker, Colorado. Today he is a Type 1 Incident Commander on the Portland National Incident Management Organization Team.

…Another improvement made after South Canyon, [Hannenberg] said, was in the way fire agencies, both federal land fire managers and local fire departments, communicate with each other and cooperate on fire incidents.

A criticism 20 years ago was that, with resources spread thin fighting dozens of fires across the Western Slope, the BLM decided to monitor the small lightning-caused fire on Storm King Mountain during the initial three days after it started.

Local fire agencies reportedly offered to hike up and put out the fire soon after it started, but were advised by BLM officials to wait until they could bring the more highly trained wildland firefighters in.

“The level of coordination between federal agencies and city or county fire organizations is much, much higher now,” Hahnenberg said. “There is also a greater emphasis on wildland fire training and capability with the local departments.”

Other articles in the Post Independent’s series about the South Canyon Fire are here, here, and here.

The public is invited to a commemoration to honor the 14 firefighters who died 20 years ago, July 6, 1994, on Storm King Mountain while fighting the South Canyon Fire. It will be held on July 6 from 4:45 p.m. until 6 p.m in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Those 14 firefighters were: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, Jim Thrash, and Richard Tyler.

A Week to Remember

Week to remember

In addition to remembering the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed a year ago today, this Week to Remember will include a commemoration to honor the 14 firefighters who died 20 years ago, July 6, 1994, on Storm King Mountain while fighting the South Canyon Fire.

The public is invited to the event for the South Canyon Fire which will be on July 6 from 4:45 p.m. until 6 p.m in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Those 14 firefighters were: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, Jim Thrash, and Richard Tyler.

More information about the event in Glenwood Springs.

A Week to Remember: June 30 through July 6, 2014

The following memo was sent on June 6 from Dan Smith, Chair of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Executive Board.


“SUBJECT: “A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn” June 30-July 6, 2014

This summer, the interagency wildland fire community will mark the 20-year anniversary of the South Canyon Fire accident, that occurred on July 6, 1994, and the one-year anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire accident, that occurred on June 30, 2013.

Although these accidents were separated in time by 19 years, they are bound together by several tragic commonalities. Both accidents were burnovers; both accidents resulted in multiple fatalities of highly trained, skilled, and experienced wildland firefighters; and both occurred during devastating wildfire seasons in which 34 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty.

We believe that the anniversaries of these accidents merit designating Monday, June 30 through Sunday, July 6 as “A Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn,” to honor the memories of all fallen wildland firefighters and to reflect on lessons learned from different types of wildland fire accidents. We invite and encourage all local, state, and federal agencies with roles and responsibilities in wildland fire suppression to participate in this commemoration as they see fit.

From June 30 through July 6, the “6 Minutes for Safety Program” will provide resources to facilitate reflection on, and discussion of, the South Canyon and Yarnell Hill fire accidents as well as some of the hazards that pose the most serious risks to wildland firefighters. The 6 Minutes for Safety Resources will be available online at the Lessons Learned Center website at and in the daily Incident Management Situation Report from June 30 through July 6, available online at

Public commemoration events are being held in Colorado and Arizona. Information is available online at

Many positive changes have occurred in the culture of the interagency wildland fire community, and many effective tools have been developed, that have significantly enhanced the safety of wildland firefighters during the 20 years since the South Canyon Fire accident occurred. Agencies with roles and responsibilities in wildland fire suppression continue to work together to do everything possible to reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future. The “Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn” offers an opportunity to renew our commitment to enhancing the safety of the men and women dedicated to protecting lives, property, and natural and cultural resources throughout the United States. We hope that your agency will choose to participate.”

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Dick

A tribute in song to the South Canyon firefighters

South Canyon fire song

(Revised at 2:31 p.m. MT April 7, 2014 with information about a commemorative program 20 years after the South Canyon fatalities.)

Last August we told you about a song that was written to honor the 19 firefighters that perished on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Now another songwriter has recorded a musical tribute to the 14 firefighters that were killed 20 years ago on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado which occurred on Storm King Mountain. Naming the fire “South Canyon”, a geographic feature that was south of the fire area, was the first mistake that was made on the incident.

Jim Hawkins, a former firefighter for the city of Denver, wrote the song and performed it with Sophia Clark and other musicians. Their video is below.

If you have not seen it already, be sure and watch the excellent lessons learned video about the South Canyon Fire, titled Everyone Goes HomeIt includes numerous interviews of wildland firefighters who were involved with, or were on scene during the entrapment and deaths of 14 firefighters.

Event to commemorate the 20th anniversary of South Canyon

There will be a formal commemoration to mark the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon fatalities. As of today, April 7, 2014, it is scheduled for 5 p.m. to 6 p.m July 6, 2014, at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Check the website that has been developed about the event for more details.

Documentary: South Canyon and Yarnell Hill Fires

(Originally published at 10:16 a.m. MST December 26; revised at 12:55 p.m. MST December 27, 2013)

This 34-minute documentary about the Yarnell Hill and 1994 South Canyon Fires is more evidence of how the deaths of 19 firefighters in Arizona on June 30 continues to resonate not just in the firefighter community but in the public as well. Six months later the media is still producing lengthy articles, sometimes a series of articles, and films inspired by the tragedy. This makes us think that if there is similar interest within the leadership of the wildland fire agencies there could be hope that lessons are being learned and meaningful changes could occur that may reduce the chances of it happening to another crew of 10 to 20 people. But there was similar hope almost 20 years ago when 14 firefighters died on the South Canyon Fire.

The documentary was produced by the Magic Valley Times-News which has recently published a series of articles about wildland firefighting:


UPDATE: December 27, 2013: We found another article in the series: Questioning Authority: The South Canyon Solutions. While this article is interesting reading, and quotes Pete Blume who was the BLM Fire Management Officer at Grand Junction during the South Canyon fire, like most of the other articles it has a number of factual errors, for example claiming that the South Canyon fatalities directly led to several specific changes, some of which did not come about as a result of the fire. And there’s this:

An IC on a big wildfire today, for example, may appoint someone to oversee logistics, such as care and feeding of the crews; someone to spearhead finances, dealing with contractors’ shift tickets, crew time reports, etc.; and another person on operations, i.e. strategy and tactics, who may set up two divisions of teams, each responding to their respective supervisors.

This shows a lack of understanding of the Incident Command System by the writer, a system that was first used on the Pacoima Fire in 1975 and became widely used in the 1980s. And “two divisions of teams”? Please.


Below is an excerpt from the last section of the “20 Years After the South Canyon Fire” article:


“….Meanwhile, seasoned fire managers report to officials in Washington, D.C., who may be from forestry, fisheries or recreation.

“People who come into these situations aren’t coming from fire,” said Alex Robertson, [deputy fire staff officer for a vast swath of Oregon, working for the U.S. Forest Service and BLM]. “Many times, they have zero experience on fire, but we’re coming to them for decisions. … it could mean a bad deal for some poor firefighter on the ground because of a decision made many miles away.

“We’re trying to explain risk and exposure to someone who doesn’t know what it means to be on top of a snag patch with flames 100 feet high.”

“I’m looking at 20-plus years in fire service, but decisions are being made by somebody with 90 days,” said one manager, whose identity is being withheld to protect his career. “It may be a very talented, brilliant individual, but they don’t have the same mental slides. It’s troubling that somebody with 90 days’ experience is making decisions for firefighters nationwide.”

“Why would we hire non-fire people into a fire agency?” asked another supervisor, whose identity also is being withheld. “But it still happens today. People in charge of fire and aviation should have an understanding of fire and aviation. But the people in charge don’t.”

Military aviation people without fire experience often are hired under the federal “veterans’ preference,” and no one begrudges a job for someone who risked their life for their country. “But it takes so long for Department of Defense people to learn fire service,” the supervisor said. “We’ve got to get the focus back to the firefighters on the ground. You could have become a master in biology or some ‘ology,’ and you have to have at least 90 days’ experience. But you could become a fire management officer for a district.”

Administrators “have to be allowed the time to learn (fire),” said Joe Brinkley, [manager of the McCall Smokejumper Base, brother of Josh Brinkley and a triplet brother of Levi, who died in the South Canyon fire]. “Somehow there has to be a relationship where everybody’s talking to everybody.”

That’s why leaders need to take time outside of the fire season to “build these relationships and trust” with top administrators, Alex Robertson said. “They’re going to make decisions that put firefighters at risk. So we’re trying to build those relationships.” “