The South Canyon Fire

by Doug Campbell

Fourteen firefighters perished in a burnover on the afternoon of July 6th 1994 on the South Canyon fire. I have personal experience with fires where the same factors were present and we were able to avoid becoming victims. Other firefighters have been faced with similar conditions and knew how to deal with it. What did they know that the firefighters on the South Canyon didn't know?

Some Firefighters Know
The firefighters that should be queried for how they avoid this kind of danger are our hotshot superintendents, and our smokejumpers and crew leaders that are experienced with this kind of a situation. They are the ones with an unblemished record of wildland fire fighting. There are a lot of them. Their knowledge is valuable and contains the answers needed to help others avoid entrapments.

Rules and Choices
In those years it seemed an encumbrance to focus on following rules. There is always a period of time when rules are important and a period when they aren't. Working a fire from the top down with direct handline was never undertaken without careful evaluation of the situation. To do it, I had to assure that the fire would not hook and run toward my crew's position. Maybe in the early morning or at night it won't be a problem, but in mid day hours it will be more probable and the tactic warranted a time tag. This was a time the tactic was not a safe one.

We did a lot of downhill line construction during my time with the crew in 1961 and 1962 and did not have all the rules on the list covered, but we didn't get into trouble.

When the task becomes the focal point of the crew's work, then there is the danger that the crew will not read the signs that the fire behavior is getting beyond thresholds of safety. The most important task is to maintain safe and effective work progress.

In 1966 my former hotshot crew was burned over and 13 perished in the flames. This situation needed a time tag avoiding the afternoon hours. Their epitaph became the downhill line construction checklist.

Hang Tough, or Not?
Many firefighters feel the need to remain on the assigned task until they no longer can remain. Many crew leaders have been run out of their position and feel that is normal and acceptable. Some of my mentors espoused this ethic. This attitude is not acceptable. This leads to this kind of an accident.

What Defines a Professional Firefighter?
A professional firefighter should be succeeding in efforts to suppress wildfire. When firefighters lose an encounter with the fire, they have logged another error, and their time for reckoning is coming up.

Why are These Errors Made?
It is because they made an error in judgment, made no judgment or they were there to fight fire. Many of our experienced wildland firefighters eventually learned to make good judgments.

Fire Behavior Tactics
Tactics are successful when they are based on accurate predictions of fire behavior potential. Gaining that state of awareness came slowly, in my case. It took me about 20 years to feel comfortable while I was engaged in fighting wildfires. It would result in fewer accidents if we could teach that skill to beginning firefighters, rather than letting them learn it as I have had to learn.

What Should Be the Protocol for Wildland Firefighting?
Haz-Mat protocol requires that tactics be based on the potential hazards of the situation. These people do not engage the problem until they mitigate the risk and hazard by an accepted system and procedure. By this taught method they are able to predict the outcome accurately. How would things change if we used that protocol on wildfires? I don't think we do that now.

Can we apply that protocol to wildland firefighting? Ask yourself if you can describe the fire's potential and design a tactic that would be safe and effective. How should this fire been fought? Every firefighter needs to know how the South Canyon, and all the other entrapment fires, should have been fought in order to learn how to face future situations. This is the subject of Campbell Prediction System classes.

The firefighters on the South Canyon fire were observing changes that indicated the situation was getting more and more dangerous. They did not disengage and give up until they got run out. It was too late by then to avoid many being burned over. Was this crew behavior habitual? Is this behavior isolated to the few? Are we assigning others with this ethic to the same kind of situations?

Effective Training
What is needed is training on how to match the tactics to the potential of the fire and act to change the tactic as the situation unfolds. We need to know how to observe and communicate what this fire is telling you. What is needed to prevent this kind of accident is a system that works to determine the fire behavior potential for various situations. The Campbell Prediction System (CPS) is designed for this purpose.

CPS was designed because of the failure of other training courses to provide enough solid wisdom. This system doesn¹t use predicted perimeters and spread rates. That is not useful information to firefighters.

Firefighters need to know which areas are potentially beyond threshold of control and the areas that are within the threshold of control. Firefighters should base their tactical action on this information.

Some have designed their own way of being successful. They begin with the ethics of firefighting. They came here to win not just fight fire. Then they assure that firefighters can recognize dangers of changing fireground situations and become accomplished in predicting these variations. When firefighters have learned to recognize the potential for change in fire behavior, then they are considered qualified to engage wildland fire without supervision.

Assuming the proper ethics are in place, let us use some fireground wisdom or what I call fireground logic, which includes: information available to an observer and logical questions to ask and answer.

This fire was burning on a hilltop, out of alignment, and it continued to be alive the next morning.

Q. What does this mean?
A. The fire is not going out by itself.

Q. What does that indicate?
A. It will have to be put out.

The fire lines were not holding and the fire perimeter was expanding.

Q. What does that mean?
A. This fire will be hard to contain.

Q. What do you make of that?
A. You either need more effective suppression, or you had better pick a point on the terrain, or a point in time where you give it up and get out of the way.

Q. Where and when will the fire gain alignment?
A. This is something one can observe or plot on a contour map or point out on scene. This is the fire's potential.

Q. Is this situation getting worse or getting easier?
A. This situation is getting worse.

Q. What will happen, fire behavior-wise, when the fire relocates and becomes a fire in full alignment with the forces that cause the fire to run? A. It is going to change dramatically for the worse.

Q. When do we disengage from this direct attack?
A. Pick a point on the terrain. or a time to disengage.

Q. What if the fire doesn't make a run to the top of Storm King?
A. It doesn't matter. You acted professionally. To do otherwise is wrong.

Predict the changes in fire behavior using information gained from observations at the scene, "the fire's signature". Develop the tactics as "fire behavior tactics" rather than "opportunity tactics." Make sure you change tactics as the situation changes before the fire makes a run.

Fight the fire when it is "out of alignment."
Stay out of the way of potential fire runs.
Change tactics before the fire changes.
Communicate using correct logic, information and language on the fireline.
Win each firefight.