March 27–Forty years ago this coming July 17, at about 2:40 in the afternoon near the top of a steep, sun-baked ridge in western Colorado, four members of the Mormon Lake Hotshots were overrun by flames while fighting the Battlement Creek Fire. Three of them died.
The tragedy led to significant changes in how wildfires are fought and how fire crews are equipped, changes credited with saving hundreds of lives in these past four decades.
Of the three hotshots who died, two were veterans of the fire lines: Anthony Czak, 25, of Flagstaff, Ariz., a crew boss, and Stephen Furey, 23, of Salmon, Idaho, were each in their fourth year as U.S. Forest Service hotshots.
The last of the three was a fire line rookie. He’d graduated from UW-River Falls with a degree in conservation, a 22-year-old outdoors enthusiast who’d been a hotshot for only two months. He’d traveled more than a thousand miles from his hometown of Bloomer to take the job. His name was Scott L. Nelson.
—-The Battlement Creek Fire started July 11, 1976, with a lightning strike on Morrisania Mesa, a 6,047-foot mountain near Grand Valley (now Parachute), Colo. The mesa rises to 8,400 feet, and the slope near the top of the ridge line reaches 75 percent. The entire ridge was a tinderbox, baked in the sun and covered in Gambel’s oak shrub bearing dead, dry leaves killed the previous month in a rare June frost.
“(Dry oak brush) rate of fire spread has been observed and timed to be an incredible 16 acres per minute …,” read a report written by a forest researcher in response to the Battlement Creek tragedy. “Fast-running mule deer have been found dead in oak brush burns — unable to outrun the fire’s spread.”
Local crews handled the initial fire, but on July 15 it escaped containment and quickly spread in the direction of natural gas lines and wells and, more troubling, several tanks containing explosive gases and low-level radioactive waste.
In 1969, the experimental Project Rulison involved detonating a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb 8,426-feet deep in the bedrock to try to release trapped natural gas. The nuclear blast succeeded — gas was released into the cavity and fissures produced by the explosion — but the gas was too radioactive to use. The test wells were sealed and what gas and other material that had been collected, explosive and radioactive, was stored in two above-ground tanks, all of which now sat in the path of the Battlement Creek Fire.
Even though officials in Western states were tracking 198 different fires, the Battlement Creek Fire was assigned 13 crews totaling 270 firefighters and about 20 supervisors. By July 16, the fire had grown to more than 500 acres, contained to one side of a steep drainage. Crews began building a line to surround the fire, using bulldozers where practical, hand tools where not. They also started various backfires inside the fire lines to widen the lines and prevent breakouts.
That day a B-26 dropping retardant on the Battlement Creek Fire crashed on a nearby slope, killing the pilot and starting a second fire. Recovering the pilot’s body and putting out the second fire distracted key fire supervisors on site, a factor cited in the official report on the next day’s burnover.
Crews working overnight made good progress in containing the original fire, so on the morning of July 17 fire crews were tasked with improving the fire line. The Happy Jack Hotshots were assigned to the lower part of the ridge, the Mormon Lake Hotshots the top. Both crews were to widen the fire line and start backfires to eliminate unburned fuels.
And then a series of communication breakdowns and misunderstandings lead to the deaths of the three Morman Lake Hotshots.
—-When they arrived on the ridge top, the Mormon Lake Hotshots were to divide into two groups, one to widen the fire line, the other to start backfires to eliminate nearby unburned brush. The crew doing the burnout would be working farther away from their assigned safety zone, an area that had burned the day before, called “the good black.” The whole crew also had been issued fire shelters — small tentlike structures made of fire-resistant fabric — but carrying them wasn’t mandatory at the time, so they’d left them at camp, shedding the extra weight.
Scott Nelson originally was assigned to the crew widening the fire line, but in a 2013 story reported by an Arizona television station, John Casciani, one of the Mormon Lake Hotshots, recalled how Scott ended up working the burnout crew.
“(The squad boss) came up to me and said, ‘John, Scotty is the rookie. He’d really love to do the back burn today,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ve done it many times. Let Scotty do it. …’ ”
A delayed helicopter ride slowed the Mormon Lake crew’s arrival at the top of the ridge, so by the time they were just getting started, the Happy Jack crew below them, unseen because of a high spur, had nearly finished widening the fire line and starting backfires. That delay in the Mormon Lake schedule was not well communicated and its implications not clearly understood by leadership on the fire.
“This draw burned readily, and when (Happy Jack Hotshots’) firing was completed about 1:15 p.m., the fire burned uphill toward the Mormon Lake crew,” the Forest Service’s report on the accident read. “Apparently, neither crew knew of the specific location or assignment of the other.”
At about 2 p.m., anticipating an air tanker drop on the ridge and seeing smoke from the backfire heading up the draw toward the Mormon Lake crew, supervisors ordered a retreat to the safety of the good black. A sector boss, watching from the top of the ridge but perhaps misled by confusing radio traffic, thought he saw the entire crew scramble to safety. But the four-man burnout crew was farther away and still on the fire line, some distance from the good black.
At about 2:25 p.m., crew boss Czak radioed he and his burnout crew were cut off by flames, unable to reach the safety zone. “This radio conversation was calm, without any sign of panic …,” according to the official report. The four men retreated uphill toward a rock bluff. About 15 minutes later, with heavy smoke and flames bearing down and lacking their fire shelters, Czak ordered the crew to remove their canvas vests and use the water in their canteens to wet down the vests and their fire-resistant shirts and non-fire-resistant blue jeans and lay down on the fire line, with the vests covering their heads.
“All four men were close enough to touch each other,” the official report read. “The flames and smoke roared overhead.”
—-There are hints that Scott Nelson was a shy boy born to live an outdoors life. Browse through the Bloomer High School yearbooks from Scott’s time there and you find few footprints. He played football in his sophomore year and baseball his sophomore and junior years. That and his senior photo are about it. The team photos show a youth who appears somewhat smaller than his peers, viewing the world though thick-framed glasses.
But outside of school, Scott’s cousin Rick Mares, 62 now and a pallbearer at Scott’s funeral, remembers a friendly, active boy who “was a good Christian man,” and who mostly liked to hunt and fish.
“He’d come out to the farm and help out, and we’d go hunting and fishing together a lot,” Mares said. “A lot of time we’d go fish this one little lake, Ruby Lake; we’d walk in from the back and fish it. Good for bluegills and crappies and bass.”
When Scott went away to study conservation at UW-River Falls, he appears to have blossomed. A River Falls Journal story from July 22, 1976, recounting his death, refers to Scott as “a former University of Wisconsin-River Falls student and local businessman,” noting he was a partner in the “River Falls Fur Buyers and River Falls Canoe Rentals.”
A story on Scott published Sept. 17, 1976, in the UW-River Falls student newspaper quotes Ruth F. Hale, then the chairwoman of the geography department.
“I knew and worked with Scott for several years, and he was one of the finest young men I have ever known,” Hale said. “He was intelligent, hard-working and dedicated, and his loss is one that everyone who knew him feels most acutely.”
The geography department established the Scott Nelson Memorial Fund in Scott’s memory, a fund that still exists today to help pay for “events, correspondence and activities for geography students and alumni.” A statement honoring Scott and his crew was entered into the Congressional Record in May 2001. Other memorials dedicated to the Battlement Creek Fire victims include a memorial plaque in small park at a rest area near Parachute and another at the Grand Junction Air Center, both in Colorado.
But perhaps the most significant memorials are the ones planted on a steep, sun-baked ridge in western Colorado. A replica of a wildland firefighter’s drip torch, the type the Morman Lake Hotshots were using to create backfires, marks each spot where Scott Nelson, Anthony Czak and Stephen Furey died.
Even 40 years later, well-worn paths lead to their markers. The Battlement Creek Fire is one of 14 wildfires used as a Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program “staff ride,” exercises that put wildfire leaders on the actual ground where incidents occurred, studying what went wrong and challenging them to “examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making.”
Directly because of the Battlement Creek Fire burnover, the Forest Service made it mandatory for firefighters to carry fire shelters, and by fall 2011 a study estimated those shelters had saved the lives of 375 wildland firefighters. The fire also led to significant changes in the way various federal, state and local fire agencies structure their leadership roles and coordinate their efforts on wildfires.
As Aaron Graeser, a Coconino National Forest crew chief and former Morman Lake Hotshot squad leader, told the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff in 2013, “we all memorized the highlights of Battlement Creek and the guys who died. That was part of our job, to study that as a lesson learned. It’s definitely still part of the institutional knowledge.”
By Dan Lyksett, The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
(c)2016 the Leader-Telegram (Eau Claire, Wis.)
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