Sat July 5, 2014

Remembering Tragic Fire Deaths On Storm King Mountain

Sunday marks 20 years since 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain in western Colorado. A public commemoration will take place that afternoon in Glenwood Springs at Two Rivers Park, the site of a memorial.

More than 200 family members of the fallen firefighters will hike up the Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail early Sunday morning, before the public ceremony.

The lightning-caused fire, officially named the South Canyon Fire, started July 2, 1994, in a rugged parcel of public lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. It was one of more than 40 fires burning in the drought-stressed region. With firefighting resources stretched thin, fire managers did not initially consider it a high priority.

But during the afternoon of July 6, the fire suddenly surged, fueled and pushed uphill by roaring winds. The flames rapidly overtook the firefighters, who were all considered highly trained and experienced. Many died as they took shelter underneath their fire blankets.

The tragedy prompted significant changes to the way crews fight wildland fires, including better interagency cooperation, says David Boyd, a public information officer with the BLM.

A cross made of a hard hat, shovel and Pulaski used by wildland firefighters stands at the Wildland Firefighters Monument in Boise, ID.
Credit U.S. Forest Service photo / USDA

“Communication really improved – among individual firefighters, among different levels of firefighting,” Boyd notes. “From dispatch to the firefighters on the ground, from the managers of the fire fighting – all that’s really improved.”

In addition, Boyd says risk assessments and critical weather information are better communicated to fire managers.

In the wake of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, which claimed the lives of 19 firefighters in 2013, some have questioned whether the new precautions have actually resulted in safety improvements. Boyd acknowledges that despite procedural changes, it’s impossible to mitigate all the risks.

“It’s still an inherently dangerous field,” Boyd says.