Lessons of Storm King couldn’t protect crew
When Arizona’s Granite Mountain Hotshot crew hiked a few years ago up Storm King Mountain where 14 firefighters once died near Glenwood Springs, it was an emotional, sad and somber day for them.
“A Hotshot crew is a pretty humorous bunch and they’re pretty upbeat, but that afternoon and through the night, it was just, people were in awe, people were committed to never letting this happen again,” said Darrell Willis, wildland division chief with the Prescott (Ariz.) Fire Department.
“And then it happened. It happened to them,” said Willis.
He was part of that Storm King hike and is now attending funeral after funeral after the deaths of 19 of Prescott’s 20 Granite Mountain crew members when erratic winds caused a fire to burn back over them in Yarnell, Ariz., June 30.
“I was just heartbroken,” Jim Roth said when he heard the news of the Arizona deaths. Roth is the brother of Roger Roth, one of the 14 who died when high winds caused the blow-up of a fire burning on Storm King 19 years ago July 6.
“I was just so heartbroken over the fact that we’re going to have not 14 families, but we’re going to have 19 families and their friends having to go through the same things we went through. … It’s just terrible.”
Roth also was stunned to hear Wednesday that the Granite Mountain crew had visited Storm King.
“It means that they really took safety seriously, because to visit Storm King Mountain for a firefighter is like going to school. It’s like going to class and understanding what to do and what not to do. I’m so glad they did that and so surprised that they had this terrible burnover happen to them.”
Now Roth said he expects that the family and friends of the Yarnell tragedy, just as in the case of Storm King, will want to make sure authorities learn from it and understand what mistakes occurred and what improvements in safety training and equipment can be made to try to prevent yet another such disaster.
Roth will be particularly interested in the equipment side of things. An aerospace engineer, he was prompted by his brother’s death to work on design of improved emergency shelters for firefighters. He said the Forest Service considered a shelter design by him but chose another one a decade or so back as it sought to upgrade shelters that couldn’t protect the Storm King 14. But its new shelter proved inadequate for the 19 firefighters in Arizona.
“I think this is a real good opportunity to learn and to try to develop better equipment,” he said.
For some, the very idea that a disaster like Storm King could even repeat itself, much less claim even more lives, is almost incomprehensible.
“I can’t believe that that many guys could get caught in a firestorm like that and have this happen again. It’s just unbelievable,” said Scott Bolitho.
He was part of the Glenwood Springs’ Storm King 14 Committee that oversaw creation of a monument to the fire victims there.
Each committee member also served as a liaison to a victim’s family, in Bolitho’s case, Roger Roth’s.
“It’s a sad deal,” he said of the Arizona deaths. “When it happens to that many people in one unit, there’s no way to get around comparing to what happened up here.”
Willis said seeing the Storm King site was “gut-wrenching, is the only way I can put it. It’s gut-wrenching, and you know, we’re going to be kind of sister cities now” with Glenwood.
Despite the remote location of the Arizona deaths, he expects many will want to visit the Yarnell site, just as thousands of firefighters and others have in hiking up Storm King over the years to both seek lessons and pay respects in what has become something of a pilgrimage. Roth actually took back-to-back trips up the steep mountain on the fire’s anniversary Saturday to escort friends of his brother’s to the slope where he died.
“It was a very, very special day, to be able to … give them closure on what happened,” he said.
Willis said the Granite Mountain crew had finished working on a Denver-area fire when they decided to go home by a longer route just to be able to visit Storm King Mountain.
“The whole crew, including myself, hiked the site, got up on top and looked at everything and talked about it and studied it and committed that this would never happen again and just really tried to learn from that.
“… It’s just one of those things that these guys were students of fire and wanted to learn from it.”
But that very crew ended up dying the same kind of death, and in greater numbers.
“It’s hard to fathom, it’s hard to put into words what we’re experiencing right now,” he said. “Prescott, the whole community, everything about the community has dramatically changed and it will never be the same.”
He said he doesn’t have answers yet to what might be learned from the crew’s loss. He doesn’t think they can carry much better equipment.
“We had all the right gear,” he said.
Roth said it’s too early to say what lessons the Arizona tragedy holds, and he can’t say whether the shelter he designed would have saved any of the firefighters.
“I don’t have the data. We need to understand what that fuel type was, what the flame intensities were, what the temperatures were,” he said.
Hoping to make a positive out of his brother’s death, Roth formed Storm King Mountain, an entity that has developed products such as a fire barrier curtain that can be placed inside a vehicle to help protect occupants as a fire passes. The curtain has saved about 18 lives, he said.
He said the Forest Service decided the personal shelter he developed was too expensive, at nearly $300, and opted for one it thought could be produced for about half the price. But it ended up costing as much, he said.
“In the meantime we’ve been looking at even better materials and technology that can handle better flame impingement, so maybe out of this tragedy they’ll give us a better shot at producing a better product,” he said.
He’s anxious to see firefighters equipped with shelters that could help them survive in conditions such as those on Storm King Mountain and in Yarnell.
“A fire shelter should give them a fighting chance,” he said.
Unfortunately, said Willis, future fatalities aren’t entirely avoidable.
“This business is inherently a danger. It’s like war. It’s like the military. They learn from things and even if (the Granite Mountain 19) did everything right, which I in all my heart believe, they didn’t see something.
“You can go through all the things we tried to fix (safety-wise after Storm King), I believe all the bases were covered. It was one of those things that I can’t explain and I’m absolutely sure that more wildland firefighters are going to die … because of the dangerous nature of the business they’re involved in.”