OCTOBER 21, 2003
MICHAEL A. ROBERTO
ERIKA M. FERLINS
Storm King Mountain
A youngster who is caught up in the thrills that wildfire situations can produce will push a reasonable tactic into a risky tactic, pushing the envelope further and further, again and again, until the numbers catch up with them and they become the hero, or dead . . . .
— Doug Campbell, USFS retired1
We often violate the ‘Standard Orders,’ to push the envelope when our judgment and experience tells us that we can. . . . We do it to protect lives . . . .
— Quentin Rhoades, USFS smokejumper2
On July 6, 1994, twelve firefighters perished in a fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado. The incident marked the first case of smokejumper fatalities on the fire line since the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949. In both cases, crewmembers died as they raced a fire blowup to a ridge top. One scholar reflected on the similarities between the two catastrophes: “Something that Mann Gulch and South Canyon have in common is a series of events in which something very small escalated into something monstrous.”3
The official investigation of the tragedy created quite a stir. Authorities argued that the “can-do” attitude of the crews contributed to the deaths of the firefighters. Surviving crewmembers and family members of the deceased rejected this explanation. They blamed federal agencies for not reacting quickly when the fire began and not providing the resources necessary to attack the fire effectively.
Elements at Storm King
Storm King Mountain loomed 8,700 feet above Interstate Highway 70 and the Colorado River, seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The terrain below the peak fell in a series of steep, rugged ravines, ridges, and drainage gullies. Gambel oak was the primary vegetation on the northand west-facing slopes, while mixed juniper over grass dominated the south- and east-facing slopes (Exhibit 1). Fire moved quickly in juniper and grass. The Gambel oak was over 50 years old, dense, and canopied over the hillside, which drastically limited visibility.4 A 1976 fire investigation report characterized dry Gambel oak as a highly flammable and treacherous fuel.5
________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Professor Michael A. Roberto and Research Associate Erika M. Ferlins prepared this case. This case was developed from published sources. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.
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Storm King Mountain
A severe drought occurred in the spring and summer of 1994. On July 1, a National Weather Service forecaster issued a Red Flag Watch to firefighters around the area, meaning a high potential for large fire growth. 6 By July 2, forecasters elevated it to a Red Flag Warning, indicating a “very serious situation for wildland fire.”7
Lightning ignited the fire on the evening of July 2, in one of the worst storms in state history. The storm sparked 15 new fires in the Grand Junction district of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Twenty-three older fires also continued to burn, with some listed as a higher priority than Storm King.8 During that very busy summer, crews had responded to five times the number of fires as the annual average.9
According to official BLM policy, the agency established mandatory fire...
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