Storm King Fire: Lessons learned, new challenges ahead

Twenty years ago in July 1994 national attention focused on Colorado’s Western Slope, where between Glenwood Springs and New Castle a wildfire exploded and left 14 firefighters dead. Storm King became the worst wildland fire tragedy since the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana.

The Mann Gulch Fire, which killed young WWII veterans, seemed tragic enough, but Storm King riveted the nation because college-age men and women died within view of Interstate 70 and the Colorado River. By the 1990s we thought we knew about fire behavior. We thought we knew about the dangers of a lightning-caused ignition in both tinder-dry grass and in oak brush. Yes, 26 firefighters raced down to the highway following an escape route, but 14 young men and women died on that barren, rocky ridge. They became known as the Storm King 14. Locals vowed the community would never forget.

Twelve months after the Storm King Fire, concerned citizens from Glenwood Springs and donors from across the nation contributed to a Storm King Memorial that represents a new community and environmental awareness in the American West.  For the first time a western memorial was created about heroism and tragedy and human loss to the forces of nature, but also about the natural place of fire in a western ecosystem.

What can we learn from Storm King about the importance of crew communication, about the historic “can-do” attitude of firefighters who were already exhausted, and about the vagaries of western wind and weather? What can we learn about having adequate equipment and tactical support? What facts led to 14 deaths?

On July 3, 1994, at the beginning of a dangerous wildfire season, lightning caused a small wildfire to ignite near Storm King Mountain on Bureau of Land Management land in the Colorado River Valley.  On July 4 a crew went in to contain the blaze.  By July 5 when smokejumpers parachuted in to Storm King Mountain, 90 percent of available fire equipment and crews were already committed to other fires in the region. On the afternoon of July 6 a fast-moving cold front caused the wind in South Canyon, below Storm King Mountain, to gust strongly enough to blow off hard hats worn by firefighters.  Between 4 and 4:30 p.m., a fire blowup propelled flames uphill at 35 feet per second, and here, within two miles of Interstate 70, 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain as they tried to stop a fire that was burning perilously close to Glenwood Springs.  A small, lightning-caused fire had escalated into an intense firestorm traveling over 500 feet a minute, sucking up all oxygen in its path, and spewing a volcano-like mountain of smoke miles into the air. Within five hours the fire burned 2,115 acres.

The Storm King Fire was one of the worst wildland firefighting accidents in the United States.  It made national headlines, and within the week television specials featured the lives of those young men and women who had died fighting a blowup —  the most unpredictable type of wildfire that begins with a wall of superheated air and ends with a flame front more than 30-feet high.  Their deaths deeply affected Coloradans and all those who fight fires on public lands throughout the West. 

Within 12 months volunteers created a memorial park for the 14 firefighters and an interpretive memorial trail.  Grateful citizens and firemen all over the United States contributed $135,000 in cash to the Storm King Monument fund, a substantial amount in donated goods and services, and $425,000 in cash to a disaster fund for families of the dead.

On July 6, 1995, formal ceremonies opened the Storm King Fourteen Memorial Trail and the bronze firefighter statues at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs.  Around the statues are granite boulders with special plaques for each fallen firefighter that includes that person’s photograph and name.  Fire crews leave shirt patches, T-shirts, and caps as if to say “They were one of ours.”

What are the lessons from Storm King?  The fatalities may have been avoided.  There were errors in judgment and confusion over who was in charge on the mountain. Those who survived dropped their equipment and deployed fire shelters or took the escape route when they were ordered to. Those who died included a few who were still carrying chainsaws.  Hotshot crew members and helitack crew members died, and so did the first smokejumpers since 1949.

If the Mann Gulch tragedy brought about a better understanding of fire behavior, the Storm King Fire resulted in a better understanding of human behavior in dangerous and unforgiving conditions and the absolute need to have up-to-date weather reports. 

On Storm King Mountain the living have remembered the dead and therefore the dead will go on living. 

Thanks to the Storm King Fire there is now interagency cooperation when fighting fires and more opportunity for firefighters to ask questions, seek clear directions and take time to be safer. The aggressive, macho, “can-do” firefighter culture of the 20th century has evolved into a 21st century culture with a heightened sense of safety, better safety training and posted fire lookouts. The goal now is to have a “passion for safety.” Firefighters can refuse an assignment if they deem it too dangerous and not jeopardize their careers.

Firefighters have improved communication both among themselves and with dispatchers aware of swiftly changing weather conditions. Fire managers monitor potential threats. A direct result of the Storm King Fire is the new Red Book or fire operations guide. The 18 “fire watchout” terms have been simplified to five with the acronym LACES—lookout, action plan, containment, exposure and safety zone.

Training techniques encourage better assimilation and teamwork so that crews are not split up. Team leaders are more aware of exhaustion and the need for rest both on a fire and between fires. There is also a better understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder among firefighters.

While firefighters may now speak their own minds, they face larger fires that have become the norm. Megafires have scorched the West and Colorado, and catastrophic fires may be increasing. Global warming is melting snow faster. The fire season now starts earlier and lasts longer, and across the West thousands of acres of dead trees stand ready to ignite because of pine beetle infestations.

On June 30, 2013, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots died on the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott, Arizona, after being trapped in a brush-choked bowl. Family members have filed 12 claims seeking $220 million in compensation, and their attorneys believe the men’s deaths could have been prevented. The families insist that “this type of tragedy does not happen again.”  A father of one of the deceased firefighters is working to invent a new type of fire shelter.

A deadly lament continues: Mann Gulch, Storm King and now the Yarnell Fire. Of all the lessons learned, perhaps the most important is that wildland firefighting is inherently dangerous. If we choose to intervene in a natural ecological process, young men and women may pay the ultimate price.
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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