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


US Forest Service Fire policy, Then and Now

31 March 2020

Human behavior is shaped by our environment and our personal experiences.  William B. Greeley, the third chief of the US Forest Service (1920-1928), is no different (Egan 2010). Bill graduated at the top of the first forestry class at Yale in 1904 and was hand picked by Gifford Pinchot to work for the Region 1 forest supervisor that put him in charge of 41 million acres of Montana, Idaho, and Washington.  This is important to understand because Yale leaned heavily on the European model of forestry and Pinchot was also educated at Yale and in Europe as well.  European forestry fights fire aggressively. 

Greeley’s position as the Region 1 supervisor put him on the front lines during the Big Burn of 1910 turned into a firestorm that consumed 3 million acres is about 3 days (Egan 2010).  After the 1910 burn, Greeley was convinced “Satan was at work” and that all fires needed to be suppressed.  His policies and mindset led to policies such as the 10 am rule which strived to have fires extinguished by 10 am the next work day.

The other influence on Greeley was the focus of America at the time.  The nation was expanding and building.  Timber was the focus of forests at the time.  Greeley’s wrote a paper titled “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning that reflects his, and the nations, focus on quality timber with no mention of ecological processes. Bill speaks of fire scars creating rot that topples trees in wind events and also states “ many fine logs” are hollowed out with rot that reduces harvest volumes. 

Today, the Forest Service is transitioning to an entirely different approach.  It embraces the “Paiute Forestry” that Greeley said would bring “total destruction” to the western pine forests.  Many of the points that Bill brings up in his paper, from an ecological stand point, are easily refuted today.  One such point Greeley makes is that fire consumes the young trees needed for nature to “make up ground” after a disturbance.  We now know many of the western forests need fire to recruit the next generation of trees.  The rot he references is essential habitat for many birds and animals.  These are all part of biodiversity and ecological function of our forests.  By embracing prescribed fire which is why Greeley was writing in protest, we can put the forest back in a historical range of variability that many of the plants have adapted and evolved to withstand. 

There will always be a need to suppress fires in the extreme fire weather conditions, but the Forest Service is now embracing fire as a forest management tool for healthy forests.  


Egan, Timothy. 2010. The Big Burn. Boston New York: Mariner Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.