Fire on the Mountain
By John Norman Maclean
Book Review by Bryan J Christensen
Introduction to the author John Maclean
John Maclean was a writer, editor, and reporter for the Chicago Tribune for 30 years before he resigned his job there in 1995 to write Fire on the Mountain. Maclean was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1943, the second of two children. He attended the University of Chicago school system through high school, and then enrolled at Shimer College in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, then a satellite school for the U of C. He was an honor student at Shimer and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in humanities in 1964; he received the school’s distinguished alumni award in 1975. Maclean left the Tribune after the South Canyon Fire on Colorado's Storm King Mountain killed 14 firefighters. He spent the next several years researching and writing his first book, Fire on the Mountain, published in 1999. The book was the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association's best nonfiction title that year. He followed this with two more books on fatal wildfires; they were Esperanza Fire and The Thirty mile Fire. (Maclean)
It was the love and passion that Maclean has in his writing to tell the true story of what had taken place in these fatality fires. He has always had a passion along with his father who is Norman Maclean, he wrote the book Young Men and Fire. This is the reason that I have chosen to read and tell about this book.
Review of the Incident:
On July 2, 1994, seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colo., lightning ignites a Bureau of Land Management fire in pinion-pine juniper on a ridge at the base of Storm King Mountain. The fire, paralleled by two deep canyons, is initially believed to have “little chance” to spread. The past two days, lightning has started 40 new fires on this BLM District. The entire general area, in a one-year drought, is experiencing low humidity’s and record-high temperatures. Over the next two days, the South Canyon Fire increases in size. Visible from Interstate 70 and nearby residential areas, the public becomes concerned. Some initial attack resources are assigned. From July 3-6, the fire grows to approximately 2,000 acres. On July 6, a dry cold front moves into the fire area. As winds and fire activity increases, the fire makes several 100-foot flame-length rapid runs within the existing burn—in dense, highly flammable Gamble oak. Fourteen firefighters perish as they try to outrun the flames. The remaining 35 firefighters survive either by escaping down a deep drainage or by seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters. (South Canyon investigation)
As you read the book Maclean was able to help paint the picture needed before the fire even started. There were two fire centers located within seeing distance of each other. One was the Western Slope Coordination Center and the other was the Grand Junction Dispatch center. There had been some problems between the two centers communicating with each other. It has been an ongoing problem for years and neither side wanted to fix the issues.
After the crews began fire suppression they requested addition resources. There were 8 smoke jumpers that were dispatched and jumped the fire on July 5. They landed and made radio contact with the IC. They never were able to do a face to face briefing with the IC and he was leaving the fire with his crew for the night and left the fire to the jumpers. When the jumpers began to attack they fire they realized that the terrain was steeper than it appeared from air. They had to disengage several times and notified the dispatch center. While the firefighting activity was being done on the mountain there was a red flag warning issued for high winds and storm front moving into the area. This message was never passed onto the fire line. More crews were ordered but only one crew was filled with the Prineville Hotshots.
As the jumpers began building fire line down the west flank, there were several that felt it was not a good idea to build the line downhill with the fire below them. After talking with the jumper in charge they decided to go ahead and start the building the line. Later nine members from the shot crew arrived and began helping constructing the line.
Again there was a red flag warning issued for strong winds and cold front moving in. The weather service sent out the notification and wanted to make sure that it was passed along so the proper actions could be taken. The message was lost and never passed on. It was predicted that the weather was going to impact the fire around 4pm. Cuoco was instant to make sure that his message was to be delivered to the people out on the line. The dispatchers were so over whelmed with the many fires that the message never was passed on.
As the fire progressed it still had the same incident command system in place. It was not adapting to the changing fire as it grew larger than the command system was able to handle at that time. At approximately 4 pm when the fire was supposed to see the cold front and the shifting winds. The fire then blew up and spotted across the drainage and made the push up the hill towards the firefighters. 35 firefighters scrambled for their lives. 14 lost their lives as they were not able to escape the fire. Don Mackey was able to escort several others to safety and then went back to help others get out. It was that time when Mackey was also taken over by the fire. They said that is how Mackey was every day. Always looking to make sure others were safe but this time it had cost Mackey the ultimate price, his live looking to safe others.
The fourteen firefighters who tried to outrun the flames perish were: Kathi Beck, Tami Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, James Thrash, and Richard Tyler.
With this incident we have learned several lessons and hope to use them to prevent any other tragic incidents. Some people think that the mentality and thinking of the smoke jumpers and shot crews had clouded the bigger picture of safety. They have always assumed that they were an elite group of firefighters and could handle anything.
Three major factors were identified that contributed to the blowup on the afternoon of July 6, 1994. First was the presence of fire in the bottom of a steep narrow canyon. Second, strong up canyon winds pushing the fire up the canyon and upslope. Third is the fire burning into the green gamble oak canopy.
Some of these points were readily apparent to firefighters. Others may be less evident. It was believed that all are important. They are:
- Topography can dramatically influence local wind patterns.
- Vegetation and topography can reduce firefighter’s ability to see a fire or other influencing factors.
- Current and past fire behavior often does not indicate the potential fire behavior that could occur.
- The longer a fire burns and the larger it gets the greater the likelihood of high-intensity fire behavior at some location around the perimeter.
- The transition from a slow-spreading, low-intensity fire to a fast-moving, high-intensity fire often occurs rapidly. This seems to surprise firefighters most often in live fuels.
- Escape route effectiveness should be considered in relation to potential maximum-intensity fire behavior rather than past or present fire behavior.
- The underburned gamble oak did not contribute to the blowup. It was significant in that it did not provide a safety zone.
- Smoke can significantly reduce the firefighter’s abilities to sense changes in fire behavior.
This was the first fatality incident involving jumpers since the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949.
Along with these points that was listed there was also the feeling from people doing the investigation that they were wanting to put the blame on the fire fighters and not on the numerous errors made by upper management and the bad blood between the dispatch centers.
Maclean, J (1999), Fire on the Mountain, The true story of the South Canyon Fire
South Canyon Fire Investigation. 1994.http://wildfirelessons.net/documents/S_Canyon_AIReport_1994.pdf