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Historic Colorado Wildfire Changed American Fire Policy

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GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) – It’s been said it was Colorado’s initiation into catastrophic fire, the deadly South Canyon blaze that claimed the lives of 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain two decades ago.

The benign fire blew up in a matter of hours and would become an important part of history, laying the groundwork for major change in how wildland firefighters battle the flames.

“This thing resonsated across the globe. We’ve had Australians, Canadians and Russians come out here. We like to say this affected us a country but it really connected us internationally,” said Todd Richardson, lead fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management.

More than 400 firefighters from across the country came to Colorado to help fight the flames.

Four days after the fire began, a fast moving cold front blasted into the fire zone with winds up to 50 mph funneling through the canyons around Glenwood Springs.

Nearly 50 smoke jumpers, hotshots and helicopter crews were struggling on the fire line, and word of the impending weather change didn’t make it to all of them in time.

“Unfortunately, everything aligned at the wrong period of time for these folks. That’s what we’ve learned now, is how to communicate a little further out if we can. Every little thing we see, those nuances that might make a difference,” said Richardson.

It’s been 20 years since that devastating tragedy. The lush vegetation is growing back and those that battle fire say the South Canyon blaze changed the way they look at living with wildfire.

“The direct answer to how we communicate now is we have better technology. But the big thing now is how we disseminate weather or concerns. We outfit more people with radios, have more reporters out there and connect more with the National Weather Service. Probably the biggest thing is we require ourselves to be very strong in our communications. We no longer have a ‘you’ll get it when I tell you kind of philosophy’ out there,” said Richardson.

CBS4 Weather Special

- Visit CBSDenver.com’s Living With Wildfire section.
 
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- See images from the most destructive wildfires (Black Forest, Waldo Canyon, High Park and Fourmile) and largest wildfire (Hayman) in Colorado history.

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