Storm King’s legacy: training, communication
There’s no simple explanation of how 14 firefighters died in the South Canyon blaze on the flanks of Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs 10 years ago. So many mistakes were made – poor communication, a confusing chain of command, questionable decisions and a mysterious failure to relay a warning about increasing winds – that pointing a single finger of blame would be both impossible and unjust. Most now acknowledge that the deaths were the result of human error and can’t simply be attributed to steep terrain, dry vegetation and weather. Whatever the causes of the tragedy, Storm King was a resounding wake-up call for the firefighters whose job it is to put out wildfires.Nothing can be done to change the past, but lessons can be learned. Over the past 10 years, the Storm King incident has changed fire management and policy. In a sense, the legacy of Storm King may be an emphasis on leadership, communication and safety.What happened? On July 2, severe lightning storms battered western Colorado, igniting several wildfires, including one on Storm King Mountain. The fire was initially – and incorrectly – reported to be in South Canyon, across Interstate 70. Hence the confusing name.For three days, it burned freely around the top of a steep, cone-shaped ridge on a shoulder of Storm King.At that time, several Glenwood Springs residents wondered why no attempt had been made to douse the flames. Ten years later, many are still seeking an answer.The most common explanation is that dozens of wildfires were burning across the state, including a massive blaze near Paonia, and the state’s firefighting resources were stretched thin. “The local unit was overwhelmed – there were lots and lots of fires across hundreds of miles that a small group of people were responsible for protecting,” said Frankie Romero, the zone fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management/Forest Service Interagency office in Rifle. “They were doing the best they could with what was available to them.”That underlying problem led to a series of other organizational problems on the fire line itself. On July 5, an incident commander – or fire boss – from the local Bureau of Land Management office was the first to reach the fire with his crew. But by evening the crew would leave, citing mechanical problems with their chain saws.
Around the same time, a group of smokejumpers – regarded as the most highly trained, individualistic and aggressive wildland firefighters – landed on a nearby ridge, with the first man out of the plane assuming the responsibility of “jumper in charge.” The smokejumpers fought the fire all night and began constructing a fire line. Meanwhile, the original incident commander and his crew returned in the morning. A second load of smokejumpers landed on the fire midmorning of July 6, and 10 members of the Oregon-based , including their superintendent, joined the growing group of firefighters around midday. While smokejumpers are experts in attacking and killing small fires, Hotshots are large-fire gurus, and are second to none in cutting fire lines. By 3 p.m., 10 more Prineville Hotshots members would arrive.By the afternoon of July 6, a total of 49 local and national firefighters were on the fire, scattered in different locations, with no clear leader. “All the ingredients were in place for a catastrophe,” wrote Ted Putnam, Ph.D, of the U.S. Forest Service, in a paper entitled “The Collapse of Decision Making and Organizational Structure on Storm King Mountain,” in February 1995. “Neither leadership roles nor a cohesive organizational structure stabilized before the blowup,” Putnam wrote. Warnings lost As a dry cold front moved over the area during the afternoon of July 6, winds increased and the fire began to intensify. But the firefighters weren’t notified of the front, at least not early enough. According to John Maclean, author of “Fire on the Mountain,” a study of the Storm King disaster, dispatchers in Grand Junction failed to relay numerous faxed weather reports containing red flag warnings for high wind. Hours before the blowup, Chris Cuoco, a forecaster from the National Weather Service, personally called the Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction district and other districts across the state, warning about the approaching wind’s severity.But apparently the message got lost in an overloaded system. “My ‘verbal’ update at 12:30 p.m. was broadcast by some of the dispatch offices, but not broadcast by others,” Cuoco said earlier this week. “From the investigation report and John Maclean’s research, it appears the Grand Junction District dispatch office had not included the red flag warning information during their normal broadcasts and had not transmitted the 12:30 p.m. update – at least they have no record of doing so, and no one in the field that day who were interviewed later remembers being briefed about the warning, nor hearing of it over radio.”
As a result, the firefighters were caught off guard as strengthening winds carried embers deep into a gulch below the fire line and ignited dense areas of oak brush, all of which were brittle-dry due to a late spring frost.The narrow canyons acted as wind tunnels that fueled the flames, and by late afternoon July 6, the fire had grown into a fast-moving monster known as a blowup. It exploded up the steep slopes of Storm King, causing the assorted crews to make snap decisions and eventually run for their lives.Twelve men and women – a combination of Hotshots and smokejumpers – were overrun by the wind-whipped flames on a west-facing slope of Storm King known as Hell’s Gate Ridge. Some were within 20 or 30 feet of the ridge, and safety, when they fell. Two members of a Helitack crew were caught in a narrow gulch farther north. The rest escaped via a drainage leading east, back down toward Interstate 70.Lookout, watch outWithin hours of containment, a joint Bureau of Land Management/U.S. Forest Service team began an initial investigation of the Storm King fire. Later, an Interagency Management Review Team was created to study the results of the original report, offer its own conclusions and develop a plan for “corrective action.”That report, released in June 1995, states that there is no simple approach to boosting firefighter safety, but that a number of practices needed to be streamlined and modified.As a result, said Jim Krugman, the branch chief of fire operations for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, the old leadership and communication models were enhanced “significantly.” John Gould, a Bureau of Indian Affairs fire and aviation specialist with the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said the changes that have been made in the past 10 years might have prevented the disaster on Storm King.”I think that there were command and control problems on the ground,” Gould said. “And there was training that firefighters get now that would have helped those guys that died.”Krugman said firefighters are more disciplined and make better decisions on the fire line now than ever before, and Gould attributes much of that to LCES, which stands for lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones. LCES was developed in 1990, as sort of a shortcut to the 10 fire orders and 18 so-called ‘watch out situations,’ the fundamental rules that are ingrained in every wildland firefighter.
The old rules still exist and are used in every fire, but LCES is a simpler, abbreviated alternative to apply in dire situations like blowups. “LCES is a front-line basic way to do it,” Gould said. “If they have a lookout, solid, positive communication, know their escape routes and have a safety zone, they should never have another fatality. “That’s a product of 1994, and it’s still with us, very big.” Furthermore, Krugman said, firefighters now receive a strict “annual reinforcement of the basic fundamentals” to keep them on their toes. Instincts matterOther improvements have also been made regarding leadership and cooperation between different agencies – like the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service – that fight fires together. For example, 10 years ago, it wasn’t mandatory for an incident commander to hold a briefing prior to fighting the fire. Now it is. Before deploying on any fire, Gould added, fire commanders gather their subordinates and cover every issue from terrain, vegetation and weather to strategies and safety. The National Weather Service is also a partner with the National Interagency Fire Center, and forecasters and fire officials stay in contact throughout every incident. “It’s gotten a lot better. We share resources back and forth,” Gould said, including firefighters, equipment, helicopters, airplanes and, of course, money. Nobody knows that better than Romero, who coordinates the firefighting efforts of the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. Ten years ago, his position didn’t exist. “That was one of the direct results of South Canyon,” Romero said. “[We’re] now fully integrated between the Forest Service and BLM and it’s much more manageable.” But while much has changed since 1994, life and death situations still boil down to individual decisions. And as Krugman said, “We can’t as land management agencies teach people instincts.”
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.