Fire Tragedy That Leads To Fire Training

There is a stigma that comes with the idea of being “American heroes” and stepping up to fight enemies head-on. This can lead to disaster when the enemy is a wildfire and the heroes are wildland firefighters. Wildfire can be unpredictable. It will move to the closest fuel in the easiest path possible and can be easily driven with weather and topography. Firefighters can train to be prepared to move if and when a fire moves but there are few times when that training is not enough to get away from the flaming front.

This is why along with the training, there must be a safety protocol to help firefighters stay safe and keep fighting the fire in a safe manner. For the events of the 1994 South Canyon Fire, as depicted in the 2014 WFSTAR: Pt 1, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain video, there were many points where the LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones) guidelines (developed in 1991) were not followed. Many of the veteran firefighters of the South Canyon Fire stated that they had felt unsafe about the situation as they were fighting the fire, key weather factors were never communicated in advance, and safety zones were out of reach constantly for the firefighters on the ground.

It was in the 2014 WFSTAR: Pt 2, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain video that all the decisions of the present fire crews were met with the flaming front. It was the accumulation of the decisions that trapped 14 wildland firefighters on the side of Storm King Mountain while the fire blew over. This fateful event cost lives but for future firefighters, this was a moment to look back on for guidance on how to fight fires safely. From this fire, there have been changes in training to accomodate for more emphasis on LCES procedures that can save lives. 

This point was re-emphasized in the America Burning: Inside the Yarnell Hill Fire Tragedy video. The video describes how 19 hotshots lost their lives in the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire when they left their safety zones and walked into a box canyon as fire conditions changed. From 2013 to 2017 there were 86 wildland fire related fatalities in the US alone. This number tells us that firefighter safety always needs to be reassessed, especially since more deadly fires are raging every year.


National Interagency Fire Center. 2014. 2014 WFSTAR: Pt 1, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. Retrieved from

National Interagency Fire Center. 2014. 2014 WFSTAR: Pt 2, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. Retrieved from

National Interagency Fire Center. 2017. Historical Wildland Firefighter Fatality Reports. Retrieved from

Weather Films. 2013. America Burning: The Yarnell Hill Tragedy and the Nation’s Wildfire Crisis. Retrieved from


Attitudes Towards Fire During The 20th Century

When William B. Greeley took over as the United States Forest Service Chief, he had been primed by the original Forest Service Chiefs, his teachings at the Yale Forest School, and his own experiences to despise fire use of any kind on U.S. forests. In an article written by Greeley, titled “ ‘PAITE FORESTRY’ OR THE FALLACY OF LIGHT BURNING”, he believed that any fire on specifically pine-dominated forests would lead to the “gradual wiping out” of the mature forests and young tree growth altogether. 

The arguments within his article derogatorily labeled those who would reintroduce light burning into the forests as “Forest Burners” and “Light Burners”. He described multiple times that the “light burner does not want young growth” and that it is “preposterous to assert that young trees can survive this process (of frequent, low severity fire)”. All of these comments compared to a contemporary attitude towards “light burning” or prescribed fire (as it is known today) might seem archaic or lacking in knowledge but there are sincere reasons behind this attitude towards fire. 

Before becoming Chief Greeley, he had the mentorship and approval of both the previous chiefs of the Forest Service (Gifford Pinchot and Henry Graves) but the most significant motivator for his despise of fire was most likely due to being a veteran of the 1910 fire season. During this catastrophic fire season, more than 5 million acres burned in the United States. That fire season set the tone for the actions of the Forest Service as a whole to embrace the idea that fire was public enemy number one and the job of the Forest Service was to eradicate the enemy. Greeley’s message might not come across today as the rational choice but there was a fear associated with wildfire that drove that message. 

Towards the end of the 20th century and leading on to today, there is a general consensus in the forestry field professionals and among the multiple federal, forestry-related agencies that prescribed fire is needed in ecosystems that stay healthy from frequent fire regimes. This idea of fire being “good” and the adoption of prescribed burns started with the National Park Service’s Wildfire Use Program in 1968 (4 years before the USFS’ similar Wilderness Prescribed Natural Fire Program was implemented). Eventually the idea of wildland use and prescribed fires has gained more science-backed momentum in the industry to actually help combat the catastrophic fires that are the result of nearly a century of fire suppression.


  • Donovan, G.H. and Brown, T.C. (2005). “Wildfire management in the US Forest Service: a brief history.”Natural Hazards Observer. July (2005). 3 p.
  • Forest Service. (No Date). Prescribed Fire. Retrieved from
  • Greeley, W. (2000). “Paiute Forestry” or the fallacy of light burning. Fire Management Today, 60(4), 21.