Fire on the mountain: Lessons from Storm King, 18 years later

By Andrew Gulliford

We live with the heat, the dust, the smoke. They live with the fire. We complain, but they do the work as volunteers for local fire departments and as red-card carrying federal firefighters on hotshot crews. Wildland firefighters deserve our respect.

For many rural homeowners in the Mountain West this summer, the only thing that stands between them and disaster are those men and women firefighters in protective clothing and steel-toed boots. But sometimes disaster strikes them, too, as it did on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, another hot, dry July 18 years ago.

The summer of 2012 in Colorado we’ve had thousands of firefighters carrying chainsaws and wielding their pulaskis, which is a special firefighter tool that’s half pick, half ax.

On the Front Range we’ve had the 130-square-mile High Park Fire west of Fort Collins and the 26-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire adjacent to Colorado Springs that’s torched 350 homes.

This summer is the state’s worst wildland fire season in a decade. The loss of homes and private property is tragic. But, thankfully no firefighters have died. In 1994 that was not the case.

Wildfire is a natural occurrence in the Rocky Mountains. A century ago a windborne fire could run its course, but now Westerners live in homes set in ponderosa pines — the wildland urban interface or WUI — myself included.

In July 1994, prevailing winds brought the Storm King Fire dangerously close to Glenwood Springs. Fourteen firefighters died on a bony, rocky ridge near Storm King Mountain within view of Interstate 70 and the Colorado River.

A year later, I hiked that ridge with local fire captain Bill Harding and, like many others, tried to understand why brave young men and women lost their lives.

Within 12 months, volunteers created a memorial park along the Colorado River, an interpretive memorial trail to take hikers to the exact places where the Storm King 14 died, and an anniversary memorial event paid tribute to their families. Grateful citizens and firemen all over the United States contributed $135,000 in cash to the Storm King monument fund, and $425,000 in cash to a fund for families of the 14.

In the 20th century West, there have been major fires and deaths, beginning with the famous 1910 fire in Montana and Idaho that seared three million acres.

Wildland fire science was in its infancy, and the vagaries of fire behavior in canyons and in grasslands, with changing temperature, humidity and wind, had not been studied. Then came the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, 20 miles north of Helena, Mont., where 13 smokejumpers lost their lives in a fire blowup when a steep and peaceful canyon became a death trap.

Fire defies gravity. Unlike any living thing in nature, it can run faster uphill. An updraft and fire whirls burst a hillside into a moving wall of flame 30 feet tall that caused the young Mann Gulch smokejumpers, most of them World War II veterans, to die. Historically, the Mann Gulch Fire is important because for the first time attention began to be paid to fire behavior, but it took years to commemorate those lives lost.

Finally, in 1991 at the Smokejumpers Base in Missoula, Mont., visitors and family members came together to dedicate an L-shaped granite wall built by jumpers and dedicated to wildland firefighters. The National Wildland Firefighters Memorial contains plaques with the names of those who died at Mann Gulch. Wayne Williams spearheaded the memorial. He said, “For a project, it is probably the most meaningful and emotional I have ever worked on.”

By an ironic twist of fate Williams, a jumper himself, was in Glenwood the week of July 4, 1994, for another lightning-caused ignition in a dangerously dry year. He had sought out family members of those who had died in Mann Gulch. Now for the Bureau of Land Management he would do the same in Glenwood, because on July 6 by 4 p.m. wind gusts increased to 45 miles per hour and the wind funneled up South Canyon off the Colorado River just as it had funneled up Mann Gulch on the Missouri River.

Twelve-foot-high tinder dry gambel oak brush exploded into flames. Smokejumpers from Missoula, and McCall, Idaho, hotshots from Prineville, Ore., and two helicopter attack or helitack crew members desperately sought shelter. Four women and 10 men will live forever on that mountainside.

Through the dense smoke in perilous updrafts, airplane pilots tried to drop fire retardant on reflective silver fire shelters, but for 14 it was too late. Two firefighters died only 11 seconds from safety on the other side of the ridge. Wristwatches melted. Williams made sure that the bodies were not disturbed until the investigating team arrived. For the next two weeks he manned an exclusive telephone hotline to console family members. The deep grief process had begun.

Today, granite crosses mark where those firefighters fell. The oakbrush has grown back and interpretive plaques help visitors understand the life of wildland firefighters. Fire crews from throughout the West and firefighters from throughout the nation visit Glenwood Springs and hike the interpretive trail. The living have remembered the dead and therefore the dead go on living.

After Storm King, hard lessons were learned. Now there’s more interagency cooperation, faster communication, revisions to the firefighters’ Red Book, or fire operations guide, and greater emphasis on safety. We’ll need that this year. Homes can be rebuilt. Lost lives cannot.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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