Tragedies of South Canyon and Yarnell Hill

July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters lost their lives in western Colorado when the South Canyon Fire blew up and overran them.  Nineteen years later, 19-Granite Mountain Hotshots perished when the Yarnell Hill for blew up and cut off their escape route to their safety zone.

In the article, The Yarnell Hill Fire: A Review of Lessons Learned, Richard McCrea quickly points out similarities between the the South Canyon Fire and the Yarnell Hill Fire and posed the question: “Are we condemned to keep making the same mistakes far into the future?”(McCrea, 2014)  This blog is supposed to focus on policy issues that relate to the material.  The most obvious policy issue that comes to mind and one that I previously considered when looking at these two events in different classes was fire suppression and fire exclusion.  The policy of suppressing every fire to save resources.  What is to blame for the two largest losses of life since the Big Burn of 1910? 

Humans always want to find the linchpin that ties an entire tragic event together.  If this one thing would have gone the other way….  But through my experience it is usually a series of small errors or miscalculations that create the event.  In the case of these two fires, both were described as low intensity “skunking around” fires when the firefighters arrived on scene.  The South Canyon Fire had burned for a couple days unattended before anybody ever got to it.  In my opinion, this lulled the firefighters in both situations into a level of comfort with the fire.  They understood its behavior and understood what they should expect from it.  Both situations had spotty communications with upper levels of command.  In South Canyon, the Grand Junction District did not relay a high wind weather warning that significantly changed the fire behavior.  Weather reports in Yarnell Hill were received, but might have been misunderstood with different events on the ground.

Both crews conducted actions that they either were not comfortable with, or what appeared to be to re-engage the fire by leaving a safe area.  It is hard to speculate why the Granite Mountain Hotshots did what they did because there were no survivors to defend their decisions. However, firefighters go to extreme lengths to protect property and life.  It is very likely that the Granite Mountain crew left their position of safety to try to get into a position where they could again help the city of Yarnell.  Both crews were fighting the fire from up slope.  McRea points out that 80% of overburn incidents happen while fighting a fire from up slope.  At both events, weather changed the fire behavior that neither crew expected could happen.  Both fires increased from low intensity to high intensity with a rate of spread of approximately 12 MPH.  This all culminated into circumstances that led to an extraordinary loss of life.

Are we condemned to keep making the same mistakes far into the future? I think the answer is yes, so long as we continue sending men and women up mountainsides to protect other human life and property from the ravages of fire, we will continue to lose lives in the process.  This is not to say we should not strive to keep all our firefighters safe and healthy, but these chains of random events will align again to create other such situations.

It is a difficult thing to summarize two tragic events such as these into 450 words or less; please excuse the length of this post as I tried to summarize while still paying respect to those lost.

2014 WFSTAR South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain Pt. 1

2014 WFSTAR South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain Pt. 2

America Burning: The Yarnell Hill Tragedy and the Nation’s Wildfire Crisis

2014 WFSTAR: Yarnell Hill Fire

McCrea, R. (2014). The Yarnell Hill Fire: A review of lessons learned – International Association of Wildland Fire. Retrieved April 8, 2020, from

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3 replies on “Tragedies of South Canyon and Yarnell Hill”

Spot on Wade. It’s interesting, when I took my crew boss and engine boss certification class last summer they set up sand tables and gave us the south canyon fire information without telling us it was this event. They gave use updates on current fire behavior and expected weather changes. We were given all the same resources those people had. We were timed and put under a lot of pressure, we had to make commands in front of very experienced people so it was kind of intimidating. When we made the right decisions which strayed away from the actual events they would throw in curve balls to get us back on tract to what actually was occurred.
Basically, I felt a lot of pressure to do the right thing and make certain decisions I wasn’t comfortable with because 1. Of my inexperience, but 2. To please the 250 pound 20+ hot shot supp staring me down analyzing every decision I was making on the spot. And I think that feeling occurs a lot during this incidents where there’s loss of life. Pressure from others to get the job down. The mind of firefighter is strong but can be broken down really easily and it shows us how human we really are. Some days I wanna feel like a hero and other days it isn’t worth it.
Now, being with ODF, we still practice full suppression because we are protecting private land and resources 9/10. I’m really surprised how lucky (and knock on wood) we are as an agency and how few fatalities we have on the fire line. But, what I think saves us, and this is from personal experience, is how small of an Agency we really are compared to feds. I have direct contact with my supervisions and they are with me every step of the way. It really boils down to communication. ICS is structured like the military in the sense of chain of command and I’ve seen the consequences of breaking with the state and feds, and id rather be on the state side.
Again, this is personal experience but something to consider. When command structures get so complex communication will fail.


I enjoyed reading your blog post connecting two tragic wildland fire events and future outlook onto learning from past mistakes. I agree that there is a high chance that these tragic events may become more common as fire seasons are expected to increase in length and severity, with the same values of protecting sensitive structures and communities that lie withing the Wildland Urban Interface.

I think one of the critical issues moving forward is how to prepare proactively to future wildfire risk in WUI communities rather than reactive strategies that put firefighter lives at risk. Knowing first hand the training and level of understanding a wildland firefighter is versed with like “watch out” situations that are aimed to keep firefighters safe, there are numerous factors that are out of their control that could pose risks to their livelihood. These out of control factors that were tragically exhibited in the Yarnell Hill fire and South Canyon fire could potentially become more common moving forward, which should be a call to more proactive management versus reactive.

As usual with natural resource management, we as professionals have a lot of aspects to think about moving forward, especially in regards to wildfire and firefighter safety.

Hi Wade,
It was a great posting. When I was reading your writing, I really interrogated fire policies and practices. Because death of firefighters is the worst thing in a fire I think. I absolutely agree with your conclusion. Unfortunately, we will have deaths in the future as well because we have more unprecedented weather figures in the last years. Also, wrong policies that allow people live in high risky areas may increase the number of deaths as well. I think it is really difficult to prevent live losses, but by using more technological fighting devices or creating more effective policies we can limit negative things like deaths or property damages. Therefore, life safety should always be first thing in the event of fires no matter what costs.

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