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Five Wildfire Disasters - The Final Reports


The United States Forest Service and the American States report more than 100,000 wildfires every year. As you read this, there are probably several small forest fires burning somewhere in the country.

Possibly the largest wildfire occurred in October 1825, burning from Maine through New Brunswick, Canada. A group of loggers ignited a fire in a drought area that soon burned out of their control. The fire burned 3 million acres of forest and killed more than 160 people.

The most devastating fire in U.S history in terms of human lives and property lost was in Peshtigo, Wisconsin in 1871. The fire killed 1,300 people in a single night. More than 1 million acres were burned.

Wildfire is a serious matter . I present a collection of final reports on five important wildland fires. These fires and their consequent review, more than anything else, has influenced the direction of fire protection in North America.

The Mann Gulch Fire
On August 5, 1949, a wildfire overran 16 smokejumpers and firefighters in Mann Gulch on the Helena National Forest in Montana. Only three survived. The tragedy dealt a major blow to the U.S. Forest Service, which had not experienced a fatality during a decade of smokejumping.

This report examines the probable behavior of the Mann Gulch fire and the movements of the crew during the last 20 minutes of the tragedy. The analysis is a reconstruction of what probably happened.

A best selling book by Norman Maclean called Young Men and Fire , describes the worst disaster ever to happen to a smokejumper crew.

The South Canyon Fire
On July 3, 1994, the Bureau of Land Management received a report of a fire near the base of Storm King Mountain in the South Canyon, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Over the next several days the South Canyon Fire increased in size and BLM/Forest Service dispatched hotshot crews, smokejumpers, and helicopters to contain the fire - with very little luck.

On the afternoon of July 6, the South Canyon fire spotted back across the drain and beneath the firefighters, moving onto steep slopes and into dense, highly flammable Gambel oak. Within seconds, a wall of flame raced up the hill toward the firefighters on the west flank fireline.

Failing to outrun the flames, 12 firefighters perished. Two helitack crew members on top of the ridge also died when they tried to outrun the fire to the northwest. The remaining 35 firefighters survived by escaping out the east drainage or by seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters.

The Lowden Ranch Prescribed Fire
On July 2, 1999, a planned 100-acre prescribed fire ignited by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) escaped control near Lewiston, California. The wildfire grew to about 2,000 acres and destroyed 23 residences before it was contained, a week later, by the California Department of Forestry.

A review team ultimately indicated that the BLM inadequately evaluated fire weather, fire behavior, and smoke impacts. The BLM did not light a test fire as prescribed in the burn plan and a plan of protection for houses was never discussed. Adequate protection resources were not available in case of the fire's escape. Heads rolled.

The Lowden Ranch prescribed fire has had major impacts on the federal government's use of prescribed fire - until Los Alamos...
(you need a free copy of Acrobat Reader to review this report)

The Great Yellowstone Wildfire
The National Park Service allowed June lightning-caused fires to burn until July 14, 1988 in Yellowstone National Park. Park policy was to let all natural caused fire continue to burn. Hey, after all, the worst fire in the history of the park had burned only 25,000 acres.

Not a good idea!

Taxpayers finally paid $120 million to fight the fires of Yellowstone. Compare that to the park's annual budget of $17.5 million. In the end, a slight rain on September 11 halted the firestorms. Snows in November ended the fires for good.

Because of this "let the fires burn" policy, fires in Wyoming and Montana burned across almost one million acres in and around Yellowstone National Park . Those fires, which burned for months, brought fire and fire policy to the forefront of the public's attention.

The Thirtymile Fire
Four Forest Service firefighters were killed on July 10, 2001 after becoming entrapped in their fire shelters. The fires started from an escaped picnic cooking fire in the Chewuch River Canyon north of Winthrop, Washington.

A squad boss decided to deploy fire shelters in a "rock scree" and broke nearly every rule known to fire fighting. The four deaths were "caused by asphyxia due to inhalation of superheated products of combustion."

Fourteen causal factors were determined to have influenced the fatalities as reported in an executive summary of what happened at the Thirtymile fire. USFS Chief Dale Bosworth was quoted as saying that "the deaths of these firefighters were preventable."

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