A Look Back at the Deadly South Canyon Fire

National Geographic examines the lasting legacy of the deadly South Canyon Fire:

Twenty years ago, at 4 p.m. on July 6, a wave of flame swept along a ridge on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain, killed 14 firefighters, and became a benchmark for wildland firefighting with repercussions that continue to this day.

On Sunday, firefighters from across the nation will gather at the site of what became known as the 1994 South Canyon Fire, about seven miles west of the resort town of Glenwood Springs in central Colorado, to mark the anniversary and take stock of its legacy.

Tragedy on Storm King Mountain

For many of the specially trained crews that battle mountain wildfires in the American West, it was a fire that made it more acceptable for firefighters to speak up or even decline assignments they consider too dangerous–once a rare occurrence that could result in a firing or ostracism in a profession that requires aggressive, type A personalities. No official report articulated that change, but among many firefighters it was an understood lesson of South Canyon.

The South Canyon fire, which scorched 2,115 acres, accelerated technical advances in battling wildfires, from a new generation of fire shelters–small, protective “mummy” bags carried by firefighters that can be their defense of last resort from flames–to improved communications. “Immediately, we all had radios,” said one South Canyon survivor, Eric Hipke.

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