Tragedy stirs memories of Storm King disaster
Randy Dunbar couldn’t sleep much Sunday night, knowing what’s in store for the loved ones of 19 firefighters killed in an Arizona blaze that day.
It was almost 19 years ago — July 6, 1994 — that he lost his son, Doug, one of 14 firefighters to die in similar circumstances in a wildfire on Storm King Mountain outside Glenwood Springs.
“My heart just goes out to their families because I know right now what they’re going through and what they’re going to be going through for a long time,” Dunbar said Monday.
All but one of the members of the elite Granite Mountain Hotshots crew of Prescott died in a fire in the nearby Yarnell area when they were caught by surprise by shifting winds that caused a small blaze to grow to 2,000 acres in just hours, according to initial reports.
On Storm King, the arrival of high winds fanned another relatively small fire to one of similar size, trapping members of Doug Dunbar’s Hotshot team from Oregon as well as others caught on the mountain.
In both cases, fire shelters proved inadequate to protect the victims from the racing flames.
John Maclean wrote “Fire on the Mountain,” a book on the Storm King tragedy, and has written more since examining other fatal wildfires and the degree to which better safety measures might have prevented them. Maclean said while questions will have to be asked about what might have been done differently in Arizona, initial indications are that it involved winds unpredictably taking a 180-degree turn. That differs from Storm King, when high winds were forecast but a communications breakdown left firefighters unaware.
The Arizona tragedy shows that sometimes firefighters can follow all the safety protocols and the fire still wins, he said.
“Fire is unpredictable. In the extreme, it does not give a damn about you, it does not care if it burns you or not; it couldn’t care less,” he said.
Randy Dunbar, who sometimes fought fires himself during a career with the Forest Service, called Storm King a “seminal event” in the firefighting community. It led to things such as better training and studies of decision-making in stressful conditions, he said.
“My hat’s off to the fire organizations in the country for making that effort,” he said.
Still, he said he deals with a constant internal struggle.
“It always boils down to, on a fire people go in harm’s way, and when people go in harm’s way there’s just a chance that events conspire and bad things happen. … It’s an event that it can just blow up on you and that’s what happens on these fires, they’re angry fires and they blow up.”
But he added, “Then there’s the other side of me, it’s just disbelief that with all this technology and training and wisdom and smart people that this could happen all over again.”
Wildland firefighters even today know well the story of Storm King and the lessons it holds for what can go wrong on the fire lines, even as debate continues over how much those lessons have been heeded in the ensuing two decades. But meanwhile, firefighters also are facing a different world than in 1994, with longer fire seasons and bigger, more destructive fires, thanks to causes Maclean said range from beetle kill to climate change.
“The fire wins sometimes and when fires are getting worse, fire seasons are getting longer, that’s going to happen more often,” he said.
“…. Nobody is saying let’s stop fighting fire. You have to continue fighting fire, but there has to be a greater awareness that the risks are going up.”
Dunbar said the kind of burnover fires that killed the Storm King and Arizona firefighters don’t seem to take lives in remote areas. He thinks the danger of burnovers is linked to crews trying to protect homes in areas of high wildfire danger.
“You’ve got all those fuels and weather conditions, it’s explosive,” he said.
He said he used to worry about his son being harmed by something like a helicopter crash or falling rock or tree, but never from a burnover like the ones on Storm King and in Arizona.
“So here I’ve got to drag out my disbelief again and it’s just as unbelievable as it was the other time,” he said.
Darryl Queen is now retired but was the co-incident commander for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department during the 2002 Coal Seam Fire, which destroyed about 30 homes in the Glenwood area. He thinks suppression of fires has added to fuel loads.
“I think fuels are burning hotter and for whatever reason there’s more of it,” he said.
Queen served on the Storm King 14 Committee, which worked on getting a monument built in Glenwood Springs to honor those who died trying to protect the town. He said he thinks about the Storm King fire every time he drives by the mountain, and every time his son Bryan texts him to say he’s going out on another blaze as a wildland firefighter in Los Angeles County in California.
“Firefighting’s a dangerous business and wildland firefighting is really dangerous, significantly more than the public really understands,” he said.
He believes the Glenwood Springs community poured their hearts out to honor the dead firefighters and support their families even though none of the dead was from the immediate area. He thinks there will be even stronger emotions involved in Arizona, where the victims were more of a local crew sure to be known by many.
“It’s a terrible thing and my heart goes out to them,” he said.
Dunbar called his 22-year-old son’s death “just something that I live with every day to some degree or other. It’s just never far from my mind. Life goes on but it’s certainly always there.”
He plans to learn more about each and every one of those who died in Arizona.
“The stories are going to come out on all these young folks and they’re going to be academic achievers, they’re going to be athletic achievers, they’re going to have skills beyond what the ordinary person has,” Dunbar said.
He said only certain people have the attributes, such as being good-natured and hard-working, to last long on these kinds of firefighting crews, and his son had such traits.
“They’re just the kind of people you want around you and I have no doubt that those 19 people fit that mold exactly,” he said.