Remembering The Deadly South Canyon Fire

 May 30, 2021

In 1994, dry lightening sparked a blaze that claimed firefighters lives and charred many acres in Colorado. The wildfire also taught the firefighting community many tough lessons that led to improved conditions that are still employed today.

It was a hot July in drought conditions with very low humidity. The perfect recipe for a fire disaster. The blaze began on near Storm King Mountain on a ridge that ran along two of the canyons.

South Canyon Fire

Around 40 fires popped up in the area in the days before the South Canyon Fire because of lightning strikes. Firefighters were spread thin, and priorities had to be set as to which fires they would tackle first.

The South Canyon Fire continued to grow and resources began to be assigned to the area. On July 4th two fire engines went out to the fire getting there around 6:30 p.m. waiting until the following morning to climb up to the fire and begin tackling it.

A seven-person team hiked the two and a half hours to the fire. They could clear a spot for a helicopter to land, and they built a fireline to the southwest side of the fire. Planed dropped fire retardant throughout the day.

Fast Moving Fire

On July 6th, a group of BLM/Forest Service crews worked with eight smokejumpers to make another place suitable for a helicopter to land. Eight more smokejumpers parachuted in to help with the efforts.

They worked to build a fireline on the west side. Another crew, the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew, joined them. Nine stayed to help with the build while the rest went up to the ridgetop to beef up that fireline.

In the afternoon, temperatures dropped and it was very dry. Winds kicked up and so did the fire. The fire began to advance quickly with multiple runs of 100 foot flames running within the original flames.

By 4:00 p.m. the fire went over the west drainage and was working up the side. It came up the steep slopes of the east side where firefighters were working. They attempted to outrun the fast spreading flames, but 12 firefighters died along with two helitack crew members. The other 35 firefighters escaped by running out of the east drainage, finding a safe area, or by using a fire shelter.

Overall the fire burned 2,115 acres. In its wake crews received things like radios and updated fire shelters in an effort to prevent loss of life.

Sources: South Canyon Fire & National Geographic

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