11 wildfires all firefighters should study

Reviewing historic fires enhances fireline safety by building context and familiarity with high-risk scenarios


Context is critical in life-or-death situations, like a fast-moving wildfire. Is what you see happening around you somehow familiar? Without context, your ability to interpret what you are seeing is compromised, so you must depend on training and education.

What gets people killed are high-risk/low-frequency events, specifically those extreme situations that are rarely encountered. Such situations expose vulnerabilities, and as you would imagine, reducing vulnerabilities improves the odds of survival.

This is where the study of wildfires comes into play.

Here we’ll review several historic wildfires and provide related resources to help expand your knowledge base and build context. The first batch of fires comes from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)/National Wildland Coordinating Group (NWCG) Staff Ride Library. The second batch includes similarly important fires to study to enhance your fireline safety.

Staff rides: Reviewing wildfires that prompted change

Staff rides were first developed by the Prussian Army in the early-1800s. This method of studying command and leadership was later adopted by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The USFS also uses the concept to examine lessons from historic fires.

The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision-makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. It is not a tactical fault-finding exercise.

Each fire listed here is part of the Staff Ride Library collection, as each fire prompted significant fire service change. The collection includes important fires and contains reports, maps and investigative materials.

1. Rock Creek Fire

On July 28, 1939, flames overran a fire crew of the Civilian Conservation Corps as they retreated from a fire in steep rugged terrain on the Toiyabe National Forest in northern Nevada. The Rock Creek Fire was the first recorded firefighting fatality occurring in sagebrush fuel.

Lessons learned from the Rock Creek Fire played a role in the development of the first formal tactical training for firefighting crews, created an early recognition regarding the importance of physical fitness, and was the first time a fire qualification and experience system was recommended.

Learn more about the Rock Creek Fire:

An August 1949 photo shows the scope of the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont., which took the lives of 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger when a wall of flame raced up a steep hillside.
An August 1949 photo shows the scope of the Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont., which took the lives of 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger when a wall of flame raced up a steep hillside. (Photo/AP)

2. Mann Gulch Fire

On Aug. 5, 1949, 15 USFS smokejumpers and a Helena National Forest fire guard were entrapped by a wildfire about 20 miles north of Helena, Montana. The fire eventually burned almost 4,500 acres. The fire guard and 12 smokejumpers were killed. 

The investigation covered training, standard operating procedures, and safety practices. The incident created interest in scientific study of extreme fire behavior, as well as better methods of predicting potential blow-ups. This work led to development of the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory – one of the fires studied in the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders.

Read more about the Mann Gulch Fire:

3. Rattlesnake Fire

On July 9, 1953, a New Tribes Mission firefighting crew under the direction of a USFS overhead was trapped by flames as they worked on a brush-covered hillside in Powder House Canyon on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. The fire killed one USFS employee and 14 volunteer firefighters from the New Tribes Mission crew. The fire ultimately burned more than 1,300 acres.

Lessons learned from the Rattlesnake Fire played a large role in the decision to form the first national-level task force to examine wildland firefighter safety in 1957.

Read more about the Rattlesnake Fire:

Staff Ride to the Rattlesnake Fire. 
Staff Ride to the Rattlesnake Fire.  (Photo/NWCG)

4. South Canyon Fire

On July 2, 1994, seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, lightning ignited fire in piñon-pine and juniper on a ridge at the base of Storm King Mountain. Over the next two days, the South Canyon Fire increased in size, eventually growing to approximately 2,000 acres. On July 6, a dry cold front moved into the fire area. The fire made several rapid runs within the existing burn in dense, highly flammable Gambel oak. The fire overran and killed 14 firefighters. Another 35 firefighters survived either by escaping down a deep drainage or by seeking a safety area and deploying their fire shelters.

The follow-up actions to the South Canyon Fire led to higher training standards, an increased emphasis on weather information and fire danger recognition, the study of human factors in wildland firefighting, and interagency standards for fire operations.

Learn more about the South Canyon Fire:

The Thirtymile Fire crossing a road in the Chewuch River canyon
The Thirtymile Fire crossing a road in the Chewuch River canyon (Photo/Wikimedia)

5. Thirtymile Fire

On July 10, 2001, four firefighters and two civilians were entrapped by the flames of the Thirtymile Fire in the Okanogan/Wenatchee National Forest.

Lessons learned from the Thirtymile Fire have resulted in better leadership training and increased emphasis on extended attack fire operations.

Read more about the Thirtymile Fire:

6. Dude Fire

On June 25, 1990, a dry lightning storm triggered a fire in the Tonto National Forest, about 10 miles northeast of Payson, Arizona. Extreme conditions – including high temperatures, low relative-humidity, large accumulation of fuels, and several years of below normal precipitation –led to a quick burning fire. Within a few hours, the fire blew up. It took 10 days to control the fire. The Dude Fire burned 24,000 acres in two national forests, destroyed 63 homes and killed six firefighters.

From this fire came the Lookouts, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zones (LCES) recognition tool, a minimum safety standard for wildland firefighting.

This fire also spurred research into critical need-to-know knowledge about plume-dominated fire behavior, improved protocols for incident command transfer, and implementation of refresher training for fire shelter use.

Learn more about the Dude Fire:

To learn more about these six fires, visit the Staff Ride Library.

Additional historic wildfires

Let’s now shift to several additional historic fires that all wildland firefighters should study.

7. Yarnell Hill Fire

On June 30, 2013, a wildfire near Yarnell, Arizona, overran and killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Just one member survived. He was posted as a lookout on the fire and was not with the others when the fire overtook them.

The tragedy is primarily attributed to an extreme and sudden shift in weather patterns, causing the fire to intensify cutting off the firefighters as they were escaping. The victims were killed by the intense heat and flames of the fire. Other factors that contributed to the tragedy include the terrain surrounding the escape route, which may have blocked the firefighters’ view of the fire front; limited situational awareness; and problems with radio communications.

Learn more about the Yarnell Hill Fire:

The Granite Mountain Hotshots was a tight-knit team of wildland firefighters within the Prescott (Arizona) Fire Department.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots was a tight-knit team of wildland firefighters within the Prescott (Arizona) Fire Department. (Photo/Arizona State Parks)

8. Great Chicago Fire

From Oct. 8 through Oct. 10, 1871, wildfires claimed thousands of lives and destroyed millions of acres across the upper Midwest. The most famous fire struck Chicago, claiming about 300 lives and destroying over 3 square miles of the city, including at least 17,000 buildings. The fire quickly consumed the many wood-framed structures and wooden sidewalks. Even so-called “fireproof” buildings built of brick quickly burned in the onslaught of flame. 

Learn more about the Great Chicago Fire:

9. Peshtigo Fire

This incredible fire is overshadowed by the conflagration in Chicago that occurred the same day. By the time the fast-moving fire burned out, well over 1 million acres were burned over. The death toll is only an estimate; it is thought to be between 1,200 and 2,400 lives.

Learn more about the Peshtigo Fire:

10. Camp Fire

The Camp Fire ignited on Nov. 8, 2018, in Feather River Canyon in Butte County, Calif. The fire quickly became well-established in steep canyon terrain, spreading from the origin toward the small community of Pulga. Strong winds drove the fire 7.5 miles from its origin to the town of Paradise. Within five hours, most of the town was destroyed. The fire continued to spread, impacting the foothills south of Paradise to Highway 99 and the outskirts of Chico, destroying a large portion of Magalia, and burning communities in Yankee Hill and Cherokee.

The fire burned for 18 days before being declared 100% contained on Nov. 25. At peak daily staffing, total personnel involved in firefighting exceeded 5,600, including 900 pieces of apparatus (620 engines, 101 hand crews, 102 dozers and 77 water tenders).

The Camp Fire consumed 153,336 acres and destroyed 18,804 structures, including 13,696 single-family residences. The fire resulted in 85 civilian fatalities and five reported major firefighter injuries.

Learn more about the Camp Fire:

Firefighters battle the Camp Fire as it tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018.
Firefighters battle the Camp Fire as it tears through Paradise, Calif., on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

11. Oakland Hills Fire

The Oakland firestorm was a large suburban wildland–urban interface conflagration that occurred on the hillsides of northern Oakland, California, and southeastern Berkeley between Oct. 19 and 22, 1991. The death toll was 25, including a chief fire officer. More than 3,000 structures were destroyed in one of the most heavily populated metropolitan areas of North America.

Firefighting forces were overwhelmed due to the extremely dry conditions in the face of Diablo winds. The initial response lacked coordination of command and control, also there were too few command officers available. Communications systems in the area were inadequate for everyday use, let alone a wildland-urban interface fire disaster.

Learn more about the Oakland Hills Fire:

Modern tools and concepts for wildland firefighter safety

As we reflect on these historic fires, it is only appropriate to consider the changes they produced as well as the tools and frameworks now established to help promote wildland firefighter safety. However, no matter what decade or century, certain key factors will always apply.

Firefighting’s operational environment is complex, dynamic and dangerous. This implies rapidly changing conditions that must be acknowledged (or conversely cannot be ignored). As conditions evolve, complexity increases because changes occur at different rates. This is why situational awareness is so important to improving odds of survival.

Fortunately, today’s wildland firefighters have tools and aides in the form of the 10 Standing Orders, the 18 Watch-Outs, pocket cards, checklists, LCES, in addition to daily briefings, situation reports, GIS maps, fire weather reports, and more. Such tools help identify or recognize trigger points. Set a trigger point and when the indicator reaches the preset value, reassess or take preset action as indicated by policy, rules or experience.

Trigger points are intended to move one out of autopilot and into a more deliberate way of thinking. Triggers are intended for something that can be predicted or measured. For that which cannot be measured or predicted, you need to think margin.

Margin is not so much a tool as it is a concept, a framework or, perhaps easiest to grasp, a mental process for evaluating risk. Do this and that happens, do that and this happens. You are thinking about the risk and what you can reasonably do about it given the time available. Put another way, margin is a framework for structured, deliberative thinking. It is an ongoing dialogue with mental calculations and recalculations of the probabilities for something bad to happen, in real time. Time then is the critical element.

If your mind is wandering or you are overly focused on a single task, you will miss clues and signs of potential or impending danger. Vital time to recognize and process the threat will have been lost. You might have a great solution to the problem threat, but your time has run out.

Working in complex and dynamic high-risk situations requires situational awareness, not simply being aware, but being in tune with all that is happening around you. Constantly thinking about margin (of error) as it relates to your risk in a complex and dynamic fire environment helps maintain situational awareness.

To better understand margin, review the Mann Gulch Fire staff ride. It is a compelling story and a study in human nature, decision-making, leadership, and communication in a life-threatening situation. The actions of the survivors reinforce the concepts of situational awareness, trigger points and increasing margin.

Build context for safety

As extreme fires erupt again this summer, I encourage you to review historic fires of the distant and recent past. You’ll build context and familiarity in the face of limited experience, and learn critical lessons for survival.

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