The South Canyon Fire was started by a lightning strike on the afternoon of 2 July 1994. For the next 2 days the fire burned downslope. By 12.00 noon on the 4 July the fire had burned approximately 3 acres. It continued to burn downslope through the day of 5 July, covering around 50 acres by the end of the day. General fire activity consisted of low intensity downslope spread with intermittent flare-ups and short duration upslope runs in the fire’s interior. The fire remained active through the night covering approximately 127 acres by the morning of 6 July.
At around 3.20pm on the afternoon of 6 July a dry cold front passed over the area. At about 4.00pm and for the next four hours the fire burned generally north and east through shrub and tree canopies as a fast moving wind-driven front. It exhibited dramatically greater rates of spread, flame heights and energy release rates than at any time since its ignition.
The South Canyon Fire eventually burned 2,115 acres and was declared controlled on the 11 July 1994. This fire will not be remembered for the acreage burned but for the lives lost. On the afternoon of 6 July, fire entrapped and killed 14 firefighters, making the fire one of the most tragic wildland fires to occur in the United States this century.
In September 1998 a report on the “Fire Behaviour Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm Mountain, Colorado” was published by the US Forest Service.
The Study focused on two events: the “blowup” or the transition from surface fire to a fire burning through the shrub canopy; and the behaviour in the area identified as the West Flank where the 14 firefighters died.
The Report identified a number of discussion points:
The analysis emphasizes the often dramatic changes in fire behaviour that can occur when fire is exposed to steep slopes, winds and relatively continuous fuels. Perhaps more important is the observation that not all of these factors are needed, rather only one or two are needed for a blowup to occur.
None of the findings and observations discussed in this study represent new breakthroughs in wildland fire behaviour understanding. Rather the findings support the need for increased understanding of the relations between the fire environment and fire behaviour. We can also conclude that fire managers must continue to monitor and assess both present fire behaviour and potential future fire behaviour given the possible range of environmental factors.
“Fire Behaviour Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado”
Bret W. Butler, Roberta A. Bartlette, Larry S. Bradshaw, Jack D. Cohen, Patricia L. Andrews, Ted Putnam, Richard J. Mangan from the Intermountain Fire Science Lab and the Missoula Technology & Development Center in Missoula, Montana.
Last updated 4 November 2014