On the third day after lightning struck a mountainside forest near Glenwood Springs, Colo., a slow-burning fire became an inferno.
A crew of 20 elite fire fighters, known as "hotshots" from Prinevile, Ore., rushed to the scene at Storm King Mountain. On July 6, 1994, as the team fought the fire on the slope, the wind shifted. Flames jumped the fire line and raced up the mountainside, trapping and killing 14 firefighters, including nine hotshots.
The tragedy prompted an intense investigation that blamed, among other things, poor communication and lack of weather data, and it changed the culture of fire fighting. In the decades that followed, the agencies that fight the nation's wildfires banded together to examine each incident to determine the best and safest ways to fight fires.
Now as the nation mourns the 19 "hotshots" who died Sunday in Arizona's still-burning Yarnell Hill Fire, that soul-searching will begin anew.
With the fire still burning uncontained Tuesday, a team of investigators assembled in Arizona, said Carrie Dennett, state fire prevention officer for the Arizona Forestry Division.
The team will include specialists in equipment, technology, human factors and fire behavior from federal, state and local agencies who are tasked with determining what happened, why it happened and whether there are lessons to be learned, she said.
"Each time a tragic incident happens, one firefighter or many, it's a time to step back and ask how we could avoid this," Roberta D'Amico, information officer for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said. "We don't know what happened on Sunday, but we will eventually find out."
The culture of analysis and safety that exploded after the 1994 deaths on Storm King Mountain has lead to vast improvements in how fire fighters respond to wildfires, D'Amico says. One of the greatest changes, she says, is the commitment to learn from each fire, not just those with mass casualties.
In 2008, while fighting the Dutch Creek fire in California, an 18-year-old firefighter struck by a tree limb bled to death when it took more than three hours to get him out of the fire and to the hospital, D'Amico says.
That death led to fundamental changes in first aid training and medical transport for injured fire fighters that paid off this year when a Colorado firefighter had a heart attack while fighting the Big Meadows Fire in Rocky Mountain National Park, she says. Fire line paramedics arrived within minutes and revived him, she says.
Technology improvements also aid fire fighting, Dennett says. Fire managers use infrared imagery to pinpoint fires, electronic maps that can be instantly updated and spot weather reports, Dennett says.
The daily fire briefing at the National Interagency Fire Center includes a detailed weather briefing and analysis of the vegetation and grasses nationwide that could fuel a fire, D'Amico says.
"The more information fire fighters have in their pockets, the safer they are," Dennett says.
Despite decades of improvements in fire fighting tactics, strategy, equipment and training since the 1994 fire, wild fires still bring tragedy "even to the best of the best," says Dave Nuss, maanger of the National Fire Protection Association's Wildland Fire Division.
Interagency Hotshot Crews, like the one that perished Sunday, specialize in suppressing wildfires. The 20-member crews benefit from the best equipment, rigorous training and physical conditioning. The physical fitness test requires crew members carrying a 45-pound pack to hike three miles in 45 minutes.
The "hotshot" crew in Arizona "was really the best of the best in terms of training, ability, equipment, all of those things," Nuss says.
The amount of fuel for the fire, temperature, wind, topography and population growth bordering wilderness areas all contribute to the complexity of fighting a fire, Nuss says. Add to that drought conditions and summer thunderstorms with gusting, rapidly changing wind, which create "a very complicated set of dynamics," Nuss says.
"The lesson we relearn again and again is that wildfire behavior is extremely unpredictable," he says.
Donna Leinwand Leger