The South Canyon Fire began in early July 1994 on Storm King Mountain, in Garfield County west of Glenwood Springs. On July 6, high winds stoked the fire into a deadly conflagration that killed fourteen firefighters. Investigations of the disaster forced numerous reforms in wildland firefighting, and today a memorial hiking trail reminds both locals and tourists of the sacrifice made by the “Storm King 14.”
Fire on Storm King Mountain
Western states were locked in a drought in 1994, and by early summer wildfires were burning across the region. On July 2, a dry lightning storm sparked fifteen new fires in northwest Colorado. One was atop Hell’s Gate Ridge, a ridge of sandstone on the southern flank of Storm King Mountain, six miles west of Glenwood Springs.
On July 3, a resident of nearby South Canyon made the first report, and the blaze was tagged as the “South Canyon Fire.” From July 2 to July 5, residents of the Canyon Creek Estates subdivision west of Storm King nervously watched the fire grow from one acre to fifty. But other, larger fires took priority.
Battling the Blaze
On July 4, US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) engine foreman James “Butch” Blanco surveyed the fire from Interstate 70. On July 5, Blanco’s crew of six attacked the fire, climbing up a steep gulch on the east side of Hell’s Gate Ridge—what would become the next day’s escape route. Blanco requested firefighters and aircraft, and his crew cleared a helicopter landing spot, known as “H1,” on the ridge.
Eight smokejumpers—firefighters who parachute into remote areas—arrived that evening. While they started digging a fire line, jumper-in-charge Don Mackey called for top-level firefighters, known as hotshots, and for helicopter and air tanker support. Overnight, the fire grew to 127 acres.
On July 6, Blanco hiked in again with a crew of ten. They cleared a second landing spot, “H2,” lower along the ridge, while the jumpers dug a line connecting it to “H1.” When the fire blew up that afternoon, this ridge-top line became the divide between life and death.
At 9:30 am, the BLM’s helicopter crew—pilot Dick Good and helitack foreman Rich Tyler—picked up Blanco and Mackey for a reconnaissance flight. The forecast called for a dry cold front with 25-mile-per-hour winds and stronger gusts.
Blanco suggested cutting a line on the western, windward side of the ridge. Mackey questioned the plan but ultimately agreed. By midday, more smokejumpers and ten hotshots from Prineville, Oregon, were ferried in to work down the West Flank line. Dick Good made water drops from the helicopter and ferried more firefighters up to H2 from a meadow at Canyon Creek Estates.
By 3:30 pm, forty-nine men and women were hard at work. Most were clearing the 2,100-foot West Flank line. Bosses at H2 coordinated line building, directed helicopter water drops, and watched fire behavior.
Gusty winds hit the ridge at 3:53, but it was calm in the tall stands of green oakbrush below. At 3:56, Good reported new spot fires in the gulch below the West Flank line.
By 4:04, winds hit 45 miles per hour. The spot fires exploded into a worst-case scenario. Bosses at H2 watched flames burning up both sides of the gulch below the West Flank and ordered crews to leave the area. Firefighters already on the ridge tried to climb to the H1 clearing but ran into flames and were ordered to reverse. Others atop the ridge watched the too-slow march of the West Flank crew, still carrying packs and tools, and urged them to speed up.
To escape, crews looked east from the ridge, down an extremely steep slope that funneled into a twisting gulch. Only Blanco’s crew knew this route. To the others, it looked like a death trap. Blanco and Shepard stood on the ridge waving people down. A sharp counterwind, blowing up the east side, held the firestorm back for a few precious minutes.
By 4:11, the roaring fire had turned the sky bright orange, and from the air Good saw flames 150 to 200 feet tall. Firefighters poured off the east side of the ridge, while the last seventeen struggled up the final 300-foot pitch from the West Flank line. Brad Haugh and Kevin Erickson reached the ridge a minute later, singed by the flames, and headed down the other side. Blanco and Shepard then bailed over the edge.
At 4:14, smokejumper Eric Hipke was fifteen feet short of the ridge when a blast of hot air knocked him down. He got up, shed his melting pack, and ran. Severely burnt, he was the last to crest the ridge.
Hotshot Scott Blecha was 120 feet behind Hipke; Mackey and the other ten smokejumpers and hotshots were 200 to 280 feet down the line when flames and superheated gases overtook them. Some attempted to deploy fire shelters, aluminum foil tents used as a last resort, but there was no defense against the blowup.
Blanco and Shepard had yelled to the helitack crew, Rich Tyler and Robert Browning, to go down the eastside gully too. Instead the pair opted to run the ridge to the north, where they hit steep terrain. A rock outcrop looked viable for a helicopter rescue, but first they had to cross a gully fifty feet deep. At the gully bottom, the blowup tore their shelters away and knocked the men flat. Rocks loosened in the fire rolled down and partially covered their bodies. They were not found until two days later.
Also isolated on the mountain were eight smokejumpers at the far end of the West Flank line. They climbed toward the H1 clearing, crossing into a safe area that had burned days before. At 4:24, they deployed fire shelters and endured flames just 500 feet away. Their leader, Dale Longanecker, never deployed his shelter and rode out the blaze nearby.
The nine smokejumpers near H1 came out of their shelters by 6 pm. The green oakbrush was gone; only a few black stubs remained. At the top of the West Flank fire line, they found the twelve fallen fighters and radioed the bad news. Over the next two hours, Good ferried the nine out, and brought in twenty-five new smokejumpers to search for Tyler and Browning.
For the twenty-six firefighters and fire bosses escaping down the eastside gully, it was, in the words of one, “total organized panic” down a wickedly steep, brushy gulch. After an hour of tough hiking, the gully opened and they reached the highway. Within a half hour, the fire burned through their escape route as it roared on toward Glenwood Springs. Two hundred residents evacuated as the fire burned to the city’s edge. With nightfall, the fire settled down, but the mountain was covered with glowing embers.
At midnight, Governor Roy Romer confirmed that twelve firefighters had perished and two were missing. He called it the worst tragedy in Colorado firefighting history.
Immediately, people questioned why the fire wasn’t put out earlier, and why firefighters were on the mountain when a Red Flag warning was in effect. While fresh teams of firefighters contained the 2,400-acre fire, Forest Service investigators pieced the events together.
Under pressure to explain, the Forest Service and BLM published a report on August 22. It cited the “can-do” attitude of firefighters in compromising standard rules and identified management failures at the regional and state levels. A follow-up report issued October 17 spelled out a corrective action plan emphasizing safety. A final report in 1998 provided a thorough analysis of the disaster.
Grief flooded Glenwood Springs. The city council appointed fourteen residents to reach out to the families of the fallen, and a community fund raised $425,000.
Hundreds of people hiked the mountain to pay their respects. In October volunteers constructed a formal trail. In 1995 the Mackey family erected granite crosses where each of the fourteen fell.
Marble sculptor David Nelson carved a monument for Prineville, Oregon, in 1995. In Glenwood Springs, Joyce Killebrew’s sculpture anchors a memorial in Two Rivers Park, dedicated on July 6, 1995. Memorial events followed on the five, ten, and twenty-year anniversaries.
The trail up Storm King is still a place where firefighters go to reflect on the lessons of the fire and remember the Storm King 14.
Storm King 14