This week marks 20 years since the South Canyon Fire, Colorado's worst in terms of firefighter deaths. The blaze started on July 2, 1994, on the Western Slope, and 14 firefighters died fighting it on July 6.
The fire has profoundly affected families in Colorado and the wildland firefighting community, including Shane Greer, who was a hotshot at the time and is now assistant director of risk management for Colorado's regional U.S. Forest Service office.
Twenty years ago this week Greer was fighting a fire in Wyoming. He remembers getting the news of the deaths at the South Canyon Fire.
"As I can remember, there hadn't been a big tragedy of essentially half of a hotshot crew, so that was a much bigger shock," Greer says, noting "smokejumpers" who had parachuted into the region also lost their lives.
"It was a pretty big shock to everybody," he adds.
The inferno was sparked by lightning about seven miles west of Glenwood Springs at the base of Storm King Mountain. Reported a day later, it was deemed a low priority, just one of several fires burning in the forest that seemed to pose no immediate threat to life or property. Officials hoped the fire would burn itself out.
Yet it grew in the ensuing days, and local firefighters eventually were sent in, joined by hotshots and smokejumpers on July 6. That day, winds whipped flames that were 100 feet tall, causing the fire to rage uphill, right at the firefighters. They fled, clad in their heavy gear. Fourteen were trapped and died.
A multi-agency report lists myriad reasons why the South Canyon firefighters lost their lives, from failures to follow guidlines to faulty tactics.
Policies changed in the aftermath, Greer says. New portable fire shelters were issued. And firefighter training is now different: They're taught to ditch non-essential gear if a fire is racing towards them, Greer says.
In addition, as commanders decide where to send firefighters, they now more carefully assess the safety risks to firefighters and calculate whether what they're trying to save can be saved and is worth saving, Greer says.
He adds, "We're trying now to do a much better job in the subjective, complex equation of weighing the risk to the firefighters versus the values to be protected."
A memorial will be held Sunday in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, for the firefighters who lost their lives in the South Canyon Fire. For more information, visit www.SouthCanyonFire.com.
The 14 firefighters who lost their lives are:
- Richard Tyler