30 years after Storm King: Each wildfire a new classroom for bettering fire management, safety education

The number of fatalities among wildland firefighters since a tragic fire on Storm King Mountain outside Glenwood Springs took the lives of 14 men and women 30 years ago continues to mount. 

Each time federal agencies are called in to battle a new fire, one of the goals is to learn something new in the process about firefighter safety and to improve training, preparation, incident management and firefighting tactics.

The bigger fatality incidents, like the one on Storm King on July 6, 1994 (officially known as the South Canyon Fire) and the June 30, 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that claimed the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, tend to grab the big headlines.

Just since Yarnell, though, there have been four instances where three or more fatalities have occurred within the wildland fire community, notes Bryan Karchut, director of safety, fire, fuels and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region.

Among them was the 2015 Twisp River Fire in Washington state, where three firefighters were killed and another severely burned when they became trapped and drove their fire truck off a road, blinded by the thick smoke.

There have also been several fatal helicopter crashes involving wildfire incidents, including in Leesburg, Florida in 2021 (four dead); the East Mesa Fire in New Mexico in 2022 (three dead); and on California’s Broadway Wildland Fire in 2023 (three dead). A plane crash in Colorado in 2021 killed a airplane pilot fighting a wildfire near Estes as well.

In fact, the 10-year average going back to before Yarnell Hill has ranged between 16 and 18 fatalities per year, Karchut said.

“All losses within our fire community are tragic and are felt,” he said.

It’s one of the reasons risk management has become a key component in firefighting strategy and how incident managers choose to tactically engage a wildfire, Karchut said. 

“In the last 10 years, fire managers have been emphasizing firefighter safety in a very different way,” he said. “How much risk we expose our firefighters to often comes down to ‘why are we there’ and ‘what are we protecting.’” 

To prepare firefighters, training involves discussions about identifying the values at risk in a fire incident, what’s important and what needs to be protected. Those can include natural and cultural resources, important fisheries, and any private property that is potentially threatened. 

Firefighters need to know the “why” behind the strategies of the incident, Karchut said.

“The question we must ask ourselves is, ‘are the identified values such that we are going to ask firefighters to take an elevated level of risk to protect it?’”

An airtanker flies around the smoke plume billowing from the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020. Changing climate and persistent drought are some of the factors driving bigger, more intense fires. Chelsea Self/Post Independent
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Bigger fires, greater risk

That’s become even more difficult as wildfire behavior, intensity, and just the sheer size of some of the more recent fires has evolved.

The East Troublesome Fire west of Rocky Mountain National Park near Granby in 2020 ended up becoming the second-largest wildfire in Colorado’s history at 193,812 acres burned. In one day alone, the fire grew more than 100,000 acres, the largest fire growth in the state’s history.

Fortunately, no firefighters were killed during that incident, though two civilians died after they chose not to evacuate their home.

The term “mega fire” has been around for a long time, Karchut said. But fire behavior due to drought, more extreme weather patterns and an abundance of fuels has changed, he said.

As a result, there’s a low probability of success in suppressing those bigger fires. 

“Our challenge now is to mitigate the conditions these mega fires occur in at the same pace and scale that we must fight them,” he said.

Timber harvests and other mechanical means of vegetation removal, along with prescribed burning in strategic locations on federal lands have become more common. Such methods are the most ecological and economically viable way to reduce wildfire potential, Karchut said.

There’s also a lot of pre-planning that occurs in anticipation of fires in fire-prone areas, looking at natural and manmade control features like rivers, roads and fuel types that can be used to catch a fire in its path and prevent it from turning into a mega fire.

That way, when a fire does happen, firefighters can engage it under more favorable conditions, he said.

“Once a wildfire intercepts these fuels treatment, the fire activity is reduced to a surface fire rather than a crown fire, which allows crews and dozers to engage, and aircraft are more effective with a higher probability of success and a reduced amount of firefighter risk,” Karchut said. 

“Engaging in wildland fire management has always been a dangerous occupation and will continue to be so, however as these principles are continually implemented the risks that are faced by those on the front lines will be lessened.”

Better workforce care

One factor cited in some of the past incidents involving fatalities is firefighter fatigue, as crews were often moved from fire to fire in more active wildfire seasons with little rest in between. 

For that reason, there is now a greater emphasis on ensuring the workforce is recovering adequately between assignments, Karchut said.

There’s also been a transition to more professional crews within the wildland firefighting ranks over the years, and training is more intensive than it was 30 years ago, said Brian Achziger, fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Colorado.

Achziger got his start fighting wildfires in 1994, the same year the South Canyon Fire killed nine members of the Prineville, Oregon Hotshots, three members of the McCall, Idaho and Missoula, Montana Smokejumpers, and two members of the Grand Junction-based Helitack crew.

In those days, and even up until about 10 years ago, joining a wildfire crew in the summer was often a way for young people in particular to make some money between semesters at college, or in addition to other seasonal work.

That’s begun to change, where federal agencies are now turning their firefighting divisions into a more permanent workforce, with new funding available each year to better train crews and add new positions, Achziger said.

“We definitely train better and there’s just a better understanding of fire behavior than when I first started,” he said. “There are always those factors that you can’t control, and the types of fires we get now are completely different than 30 years ago.”

But there are still similarities in the ways firefighters are lost in the field as back then — a falling tree, for instance, or just suddenly being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he said.

The other thing that has changed is how federal agencies respond and take care of firefighters and their families, Achziger said.

“We’ve gotten so much better at taking care of our people, with discussions around mental health, and talking about the effects on survivors after these tragic events,” he said.

It’s something that’s discussed every year during the South Canyon staff rides, which Achziger has taken part in.

Staff rides are a regular part of wildland firefighter training, where those in training gather at the scene of a past wildfire and are shown, firsthand, what happened there and how to avoid those situations. The South Canyon staff rides take place every May, ahead of the summer wildfire season, and usually involve a hike up the Storm King Memorial Trail to where 14 granite crosses mark the spots where each of the firefighters perished on that fateful day 30 years ago.

A drone operator prepares to conduct a flyover of the Hanging Lake Trail during the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020. Drones have become a crucial tool in wildland firefighting. Peter Baumann/Post Independent
Peter Baumann/Post Independent

Communications still crucial

Major technological advances have come over the last three decades, and even more so in just the last 10 years, in the realm of communications.

“We still use hand-held radios,” Achziger said of the primary means of communication between firefighters on the ground and managers at the incident command post back in 1994.

Even when cell phones came along that following decade, their effectiveness in the field, even to this day, is limited by the availability of nearby cell towers to carry signals.

“But there’s so much on the horizon that we’re starting to look into and to test, and that we know will be here in a few years,” Achziger said. “It just continues to evolve.”

Starlink, the series of satellites that now orbit the earth providing more reliable use of cell phones in remote places, is just one example, he said.

Another change that came about partly due to the shift away from paper to electronic communications, but largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, is a more dispersed approach to establishing ground operations.

The larger, more centralized man camps that used to be the norm are less common today. And for different reasons, Achziger said.

“What we’ve started doing is having smaller spike camps, which reduces the number of people concentrated in one place and which became important during the pandemic,” he said.

What that also does, though, is allow fires to be attacked from different angles, so long as there’s a good way to communicate between the different command posts.

Other technological advances, such as the use of drones for unmanned flyovers on a fire and thermal imaging to pinpoint hot spots, have been huge. Drones were used extensively during the Grizzly Creek Fire in and above Glenwood Canyon in 2020.

Weather forecasting, and more importantly communicating weather changes to those in the field, has also evolved, Achziger said. And, the National Wildfire Coordination Group is now an official member of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), allowing greater access to satellite imaging and other technology that’s used in fighting fires.

Partnerships with private industry that utilizes remote sensing in different areas, such as electric utility and oil and gas companies, also helps fire managers better observe field conditions, he said.

fire el jebel colorado
Inter-agency cooperation was a significant factor in preventing the Lake Christine Fire in 2018 from destroying numerous homes and businesses. Jack Elder/The Aspen Times
Jack Elder | Aspen Times file photo

Enabling local resources

In addition to better training and more professionalism in the federal firefighting ranks, more and more local fire departments are also training for wildfire response.

County sheriff’s offices in Colorado also now have more authority to engage first responders on fire incidents, where that didn’t used to be the case.

That’s an important resource when it comes to the initial response to fire incidents, as it takes time for federal resources to be mobilized and, as is often the case, having to divide resources between multiple fire incidents at a given time, Achziger affirmed.

That interagency coordination was a big reason homes, and very likely lives, were saved during the Lake Christine Fire on Basalt Mountain in 2018.

Carbondale Fire Chief Rob Goodwin was part of the initial local command team on the South Canyon Fire in 1994, when such communication and coordination wasn’t as prevalent and jurisdictional responsibilities weren’t as defined as they are today.

In the official South Canyon Fire investigation report, some local fire agencies were critical of decisions by federal officials not to let local firefighters make an initial attempt to douse what started as a small fire caused by a lightning strike.

“Not just locally, but regionally we’ve gotten way better at it,” Goodwin said. “We use the incident command system better, and more people are trained in it, which is huge when you’re managing a lot of assets in a big incident.”

The Lake Christine Fire was a great example of inter-agency cooperation, he said. It was the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District that took the lead in conducting a back burn operation that was credited for saving the El Jebel Mobile Home Park from being overrun by the fire.

“We had everyone from young firefighters on engines and brush trucks, and just a great combination of people with different levels of experience all working together,” Goodwin said. “As a result, we were able to do that spectacular save, and no one got killed.”

Carbondale and Glenwood Springs fire departments also played a crucial role during the Grizzly Creek Fire, and for 25 years now the Carbondale Fire District has been conducting roving patrols during wildfire season, keeping an eye out for smoke and responding quickly when a fire does break out.

“It hasn’t gotten any easier, so the other important thing is to do as much mitigation and prevention as we can. That has more impact than us being out there squirting water on it,” Goodwin said.

John Stroud is a freelance writer based in Carbondale and a veteran journalist of 36 years in the Roaring Fork Valley.