Two decades later, intimate spot of tragedy revisited
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — It took a helicopter ride to make it happen, but on Sunday Sandy Dunbar made her 14th trip up Storm King Mountain, where her son Doug was one of 14 firefighters to die exactly 20 years ago to that day.
It brought tears to her eyes when she stepped out of the ’copter and onto the site she had hiked to so many times before, she said.
“Now I’ve done it once for everybody, one way or the other. That was my goal,” said Dunbar, who with her numerous relatives joined some 200 kin of the other Storm King 14 in visiting their memorial crosses to remember their deaths Sunday.
For parents in particular of the fallen 14, the trip has grown harder over the years as knee and hip joints have worn out and hearts and lungs have grown weaker. And while one might think that at least the pain over losing their loved ones on this mountain might have eased after so many years, that’s not necessarily the case.
“You always would hope so, but it doesn’t” get easier, said Doug Hagen, whose daughter Terri died on Storm King when strong winds trapped firefighters in a blow-up.
Perhaps the pain has lessened a bit since the first anniversary of the tragedy, he said.
“But you know, you’re not supposed to outlive your kids,” he said.
Said Randy Dunbar, Doug’s father, “It’s always difficult. You’re son’s always going to be 22 years old.”
As Dunbar and Hagen spoke, they stood on a ridge that served as a dividing line between those who lived and died on Storm King. Those able to make it over the ridge and down the eastern side survived, including Eric Hipke, who joined the families Sunday and 20 years ago was the last to get across the ridge before the fire that singed him claimed the lives of those below him on the ridge’s western side.
The October after the disaster, Randy Dunbar — at the time not much older than his son would be today had he survived — raced up the hill from the spot where his son perished. He figures Doug was 45 seconds from safety, and that Scott Blecha, who died closest to the ridgeline, was all but 10 seconds from making it over.
“It still just tears my heart out to see Scott’s cross there so close. Just so close,” Dunbar said.
‘Much smaller’ than imagined
There’s sometime intimate and compressed about Storm King in time and space, for the site of what was one of the biggest losses of life in modern wildland firefighting history. Who lived and who died came down to just split seconds in decisionmaking and speed up a hillside. The civility of Interstate 70 and cruel irony of the cool waters of the Colorado River are within sight of where the 14 died.
“What surprised me is that it’s much smaller than I thought it would be,” Prineville, Ore., Hotshot Mike Watson said of Storm King Mountain as he manned a stretch of the trail up it Sunday, keeping an eye out for the welfare of trail-goers. The Prineville crew lost nine of its members on the mountain 20 years ago.
Storm King is small by Colorado mountain standards, and the fire site isn’t some monster backcountry forest that was somehow out of the ordinary and presented some larger threat than firefighters commonly face.
“It was a steep mountain covered with brush on fire. We deal with that every summer,” Watson said.
Randy Skelton, who hiked up Storm King with his family Sunday, leads training outings up the mountain regularly.
“Most people that we bring out here have that same experience” of being struck by the mountain’s relatively small size, he said.
Even in the case of a small-scale landscape like Storm King, the events 20 years ago showed what could happen when staffing wasn’t available for days to start fighting it sooner, Skelton said.
“To me, once you lose the operational tempo of a fire, once you lose that initiative, you’re at the fire’s will, I guess you’d say.”
Skelton had been serving on the Prineville crew early in 1994 but was in Alaska doing other work when the news arrived about the loss of his friends on Storm King. He hopped on the next red-eye flight out of Anchorage.
“I had to get back,” said Skelton, who helped the surviving Prineville Hotshots cobble together a firefighting crew.
“Some of the survivors just wanted to keep going out. … Some people wanted to keep at it,” he said.
What happened to their predecessors two decades prior isn’t lost on today’s Prineville Hotshots.
“It’s a big part of our group culture. We discuss it in our critical training,” said Clayton Farnsworth, whose Prineville Hotshot T-shirt contains the date of the Storm King deaths and the motto, “We shall not forget.”
He said he thought the Storm King 14 families appreciated his crew’s presence Sunday.
“Our faces may not be familiar but our shirts are,” he said.
Kari Branjord, whose cousin Rob Johnson died on Storm King, said she’s glad that fire crews frequently stop to hike Storm King “and turn it into a lesson, which I think is very important.
“Obviously it’s a lesson still worth learning,” she said, referring to last year’s deaths of 19 firefighters at Yarnell Hill, Ariz.
‘A big hole’
“It’s hard for me to not stand on this mountain and weep,” Branjord told a companion a few moments earlier.
“It leaves a big hole in your life,” said Carol Roth, the mother of Storm King victim Roger Roth. “You always have it there.”
Randy Dunbar remembers his son’s excitement about being sent to Colorado 20 years ago on a fire assignment. He thought Doug was headed to the Durango area, so when he heard about firefighters dying outside Glenwood Springs, “I got a chill, but I thought, well, Doug’s in Durango.”
It was only when he went the next morning to the dispatch office at the local Forest Service office where he worked and got “a bunch of odd stares” that he realized where Doug actually had been.
“You kind of feel a little hopeless. You’re supposed to take care of your kids,” he said.
He said he knows his son was an adult.
“Still, you kind of feel like, what did I miss? What didn’t I tell him?”
Despite the difficult memories, Sunday also was a time to be able to spend reuniting with other families on the mountain, enjoying the wildflowers and the chirps of squirrels and crickets on the way up with youngsters, and nodding to the youthful Hotshots from Craig and Prineville who stood spread out like lookouts do on wildfires, their job to ensure the safety of others. Just like 20 years ago, the blue helmets of the Prineville crew dotted the oakbrush hillside, like reminders of the ones so young who died there.
At one point, a Bureau of Land Management smokejumper plane dropped 14 streamers to honor those who died, and at another Ute tribal member Kenny Frost offered a blessing at the fatality sites as he does every year.
“In a way it’s sad, but you know, with everybody here, everybody has grown to know each other as families,” Frost told them.
Likewise, the families have become closely acquainted with the Glenwood Springs community, and especially the Storm King 14 Committee whose members each adopted the family of a fallen firefighter and arranged for a permanent memorial of the firefighters to be installed at Two Rivers Park.
A similar effort involving the community and local and federal agencies went into organizing Sunday’s events.
“It’s a wonderful thing they to do bring all of us together,” Randy Dunbar said.
Said Carol Roth, speaking to reporters but in seeming reference also to the Glenwood Springs community, “It’s so good that you remember, because otherwise it would be a waste of life.”
Michelle Ryerson, who survived the fire on Storm King as a BLM firefighter, returned to Glenwood Springs Sunday with the primary purpose of showing her support for families. Following the events of 20 years ago she has made firefighter safety her career within the BLM, now serving as fire safety program manager at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Part of her job is teaching the lessons of fires to what she said is “a whole new generation of firefighters” not familiar with what happened 20 years ago outside Glenwood Springs. She said firefighters are “always a little bit surprised” upon meeting a survivor of that seminal event.
‘So thankful’ for ‘copter
The efforts of the organizers of Sunday’s events extended to procuring the Colorado Army National Guard helicopter, an action that required the approval of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. That approval finally was obtained just days ago after support for the request came from figures including Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.,
Roth said she was “so thankful” to be able to get a ride up the mountain. Her 81-year-old husband Wally, meanwhile, hiked up with son Jim, which caused Jim to venture that his dad might have been the oldest person ever to do so.
“It was a little harder than the last time I went up,” Wally conceded, blaming Colorado’s thin air compared to his home in Michigan.
He added later, “I enjoyed the walk up and much more did I enjoy the ride down in the helicopter.”