Luke MasieroMay 4, 2012Argumentative essayWRTG 3020 Children Shouldn’t Play With Fire The South Canyon Fire that burned Storm King Mountain for ten days during July of 1994 remains one of the most tragic fires in Colorado’s history. But what truly makes this catastrophe a great tragedy is how easily it all could have been avoided. In book Fire on the Mountain John Maclean tells the true story of the South Canyon Fire and mistakes made that caused this disaster.
There are many questions surrounding the South Canyon Fire tragedy, why did it take so long for government agencies in charge of forest fire suppression to fight this fire, and how were the firefighters in South Canyon not informed of the deadly conditions that took their lives? Communication and cooperation between forest service agencies is essential to coordinate equipment and men when attempting to fight a forest fire the magnitude of The South Canyon fire. In Colorado during July of 1994 the cohesive elements were missing among the forest service agencies in western Colorado.
The lack of communication and cooperation fueled by childish rivalries between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center prolonged the suppression of the South Canyon Fire causing it to grow out of control taking the lives of 14 fire fighters. These rivalries over jurisdiction, resources and reputation hindered communication efforts, and halted resources from arriving at the South Canyon Fire to attempt early suppression efforts.
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Both Forest Services claim that due to the great number of large forest fires burning in Colorado the summer of 1994 the BLM Grand Junction District and Western Slope Coordination Center were short on men and equipment and searched for help among other agencies who had to be certain the South Canyon Fire was an imminent threat to people or property before they could dedicate men and resource to a site. Despite multiple red flag warnings the South Canyon Fire burned for days until it was recognized as a top priority.
When 30 year fire veteran Mike Lowry arrived at the Western Slope Coordination Center to assist with this crisis of forest fires in western Colorado he was immediately concerned “Cooperation, the touchstone of modern firefighting was virtually nonexistent. Instead Lowry found competition, jealousies, and outdated thinking and policies. ” increasing the difficulties of dealing with the South Canyon Fire (Maclean 24).
The rivalry between the BLM’s Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center dates all the way back to 1978 when the Western Slope Coordination Center was given responsibility for coordination of air support for 11 fire districts, the situation here was that the Western Slopes new responsibilities overlapped with jurisdictions and functions held by the BLM (Maclean 31). This friction between the BLM and the Western Slope Center stunted valuable resources from being deployed.
Maclean noted that Lowry reported seeing fleets of air tankers under Western Slopes control sitting idle each morning when weather conditions were optimal for fighting fires, but it was the BLM’s Grand Junction District responsibility to request these tankers. In an attempt to save money and not over pay Western Slope, the BLM would hold off until the afternoon to request tankers, enhancing the risk of fire growing but reducing costs (Maclean 25). If the BML had requested the tankers from Western Slope earlier, the tankers could have doused the South Canyon Fire on July 3 when it was small and avoided death and destruction.
Instead they delayed suppression efforts and a fire that would have cost only a few thousand dollars to maintain ended up costing millions of dollars destroying hundreds of acres and ending the lives 14 fire fighters. As the days passed the South Canyon Fire was growing yet “nobody at the BLM was calling for help” (Maclean 25) without relaying this information other offices were cut out of the loop which further delayed action in South Canyon (Maclean 32). The BLM Grand Junction District’s lack of communication lead other agencies to accuse their personnel of “controlling all the shots”(Maclean 32).
On July 3 time was of the essence and since the BLM was not making any calls, Lowry took the initiative to do so. Lowry needed more men and resources than the western Colorado districts could provide and the only place these necessities could be attained was from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise (Maclean 26). Since the BLM’s Grand Junction Districts communication did not travel far the South Canyon Fire crisis was not know and it would take 24 hours for the much needed reinforcements from Boise to land in Colorado, valuable time that allowed the South Canyon Fire to run wild (Maclean 26). Despite all the idiculous time wasting displayed by the BLM Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center Managers from both agencies claimed they did everything in their power to fight this fire. In defense of their actions managers from the BLM Grand Junction District and Western Slope Coordination Center recall the climate and weather during the Colorado summer of 1994. Colorado was experiencing a drought along with intense heat, creating an environment very susceptible to fire so the BLM “announced an aggressive policy of attacking all fires as soon as they were spotted” a policy they intended to uphold (Maclean 4).
When powerful electric storms struck western Colorado early in July 1994 the BLM reported 15 forest fires in the Grand Junction District (Maclean p. 7). According to the BLM’s new police they needed to attack these 15 fires but they did not have enough fire fighters to be every where at once. The BLM Grand Junction District would have benefitted from the use of planes on some of the smaller fires in inaccessible locations but the BLM director for Colorado, Bob Moore, stuck to an older policy “allowing no air tanker to drop retardant unless a crew was on the ground to cover it up” (Maclean 25).
Moore and other upper management also claim they did not become involved in the incident until after it was evident there was a disaster on their hands, since the South Canyon fire did appear to be less wild than other fires in Colorado during this time the BLM did not mark it as a high priority fire. The BLM and Western Slope agencies required more men. In an attempt to help the BLM and Western Slope Lowry tried to order a huge quantity of fire fighters from the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center, twenty crews amounting to 400 people but they never came (Maclean 26).
This was due to managements at the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center they simply did not know how to go about getting that many people together and transporting them to South Canyon (Maclean 26). Finally Lowry turned to the NIFC for help asking them to provide any additional crews of fire fighters or equipment so that he would be prepared when the fire did get large. NIFC is very hesitant to commit crews and equipment before an out break in the fire occurs (Maclean 29).
This is a difficult decision for the NIFC because during fire season lots of fires do occur the problem is, not knowing where and when the worst fires strike, the NIFC wants to ensure that their assistance is truly need. The BLM and Western Slope Coordination claim that they made every effort to get more fire fighters and equipment to South canyon but the other districts and agencies they went to for help did not see the severity lurking beneath the smock column in South Canyon and decided to allocate their resources else where.
It is only natural for the BLM Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center to defend their actions, but there is so much evidence that points to the lack cooperation between these neighboring agencies that it is difficult not to see a correlation between the tragedy and uncooperative attitudes. The bad blood between the BLM and Western Slope created by their rivalry created a terrible dynamic one that never stood a chance against a Fire like the South Canyon blowup.
A catastrophe of this magnitude was predicted in an audit conducted by BLM officials from other districts. These officials reported “differences in resource management philosophies, personalities, misconceptions about the use of prescribed fire, had an unclear understanding of the position roles and responsibilities seem to have created a difficult situation with respect to the management of fire”, they couldn’t have been more spot on (Maclean 31).
Team work and cooperation are vital when fighting fires, the different crew members ranging from Hot Shots, Smoke Jumpers and members of management have to work together cohesively to have the best chance of putting out a fire quickly and safely. The relationship between the BLM’s Grand Junction District and the Western Slope Coordination Center was far from cooperative. Their inability to work together because of an immature rivalry prolonged their fire suppression efforts to a point that their actions or lack there of attributed to the death of the 14 fire fighters who lost there lives during the South Canyon Fire.
Fighting forest fires is a dangerous and deadly occupation, it is unacceptable for such childish behavior to be present in these government agencies who are meant to protect the property and people of the United States. It’s impossible for the BLM and Western Slope Coordination Center to save anyone if the agencies are fighting amongst them selves. Something needs to be done to create a sense of unity among the BLM Grand Junction District and the Western slope because their oor relationship affects districts throughout the state. One possible solution would be to have fire fighters switch places with another fire fighter from a different district only for about two weeks. This would allow the different district to inter act and better get to know one another. Regardless of what the solution is something must be done, before another fire consumes more lives. Work Cited Page Maclean, Norman. Fire on the Mountain the True Story of the South Canyon Fire. New York: William Morrow, 1999. Print.
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