May 4, 2012
Children Shouldn’t Play With Fire
The South Canyon Fire that burned Storm King Mountain for ten days during July of 1994 remains one of the most tragic fires in Colorado’s history. But what truly makes this catastrophe a great tragedy is how easily it all could have been avoided. In book Fire on the Mountain John Maclean tells the true story of the South Canyon Fire and mistakes made that caused this disaster. There are many questions surrounding the South Canyon Fire tragedy, why did it take so long for government agencies in charge of forest fire suppression to fight this fire, and how were the firefighters in South Canyon not informed of the deadly conditions that took their lives? Communication and cooperation between forest service agencies is essential to coordinate equipment and men when attempting to fight a forest fire the magnitude of The South Canyon fire. In Colorado during July of 1994 the cohesive elements were missing among the forest service agencies in western Colorado. The lack of communication and cooperation fueled by childish rivalries between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center prolonged the suppression of the South Canyon Fire causing it to grow out of control taking the lives of 14 fire fighters. These rivalries over jurisdiction, resources and reputation hindered communication efforts, and halted resources from arriving at the South Canyon Fire to attempt early suppression efforts. Both Forest Services claim that due to the great number of large forest fires burning in Colorado the summer of 1994 the BLM Grand Junction District and Western Slope Coordination Center were short on men and equipment and searched for help among other agencies who had to be certain the South Canyon Fire was an imminent threat to people or property before they could dedicate men and resource to a site. Despite multiple red flag warnings the South Canyon Fire burned for days until it was recognized as a top priority.
When 30 year fire veteran Mike Lowry arrived at the Western Slope Coordination Center to assist with this crisis of forest fires in western Colorado he was immediately concerned “Cooperation, the touchstone of modern firefighting was virtually nonexistent. Instead Lowry found competition, jealousies, and outdated thinking and policies.” increasing the difficulties of dealing with the South Canyon Fire (Maclean 24). The rivalry between the BLM’s Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center dates all the way back to 1978 when the Western Slope Coordination Center was given responsibility for coordination of air support for 11 fire districts, the situation here was that the Western Slopes new responsibilities overlapped with jurisdictions and functions held by the BLM (Maclean 31). This friction between the BLM and the Western Slope Center stunted valuable resources from being deployed. Maclean noted that Lowry reported seeing fleets of air tankers under Western Slopes control sitting idle each morning when weather conditions were optimal for fighting fires, but it was the BLM’s Grand Junction District responsibility to request these tankers. In an attempt to save money and not over pay Western Slope, the BLM would hold off until the afternoon to request tankers, enhancing the risk of fire growing but reducing costs (Maclean 25). If the BML had requested the tankers from Western Slope earlier, the tankers could have doused the South Canyon Fire on July 3 when it was small and avoided death and destruction. Instead they delayed suppression efforts and a fire that would have cost only a few thousand dollars to maintain ended up costing millions of dollars destroying hundreds of acres and ending the lives 14 fire fighters. As the days passed the South Canyon Fire was growing yet “nobody at the BLM...
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