Storm King’s legacy

The most we can hope for with a tragedy like the Storm King Fire is that it provides lessons to prevent future tragedies.

Author John Maclean, whose book “Fire on the Mountain” chronicled the July 1994 wildfire near Glenwood Springs that killed 14 firefighters, said that’s certainly the case. Firefighter deaths by flame have dropped drastically in the ensuing two decades and weather forecasting has assumed a more prominent role in assuring safety, he told the Sentinel’s Dennis Webb.

Yet, just a year ago, 19 members of a hotshot crew associated with the Prescott Fire Department died on Yarnell Hill when a fire in Arizona blew up and overran them. Naturally it sparked questions about whether authorities had applied the lessons of Storm King.

A group of five retired wildland firefighters, operating under the name Safety Matters, has concluded there are haunting similarities in both tragedies.

Safety Matters spent a year studying eight fires that killed a total of 44 firefighters in the past 20 years. It found these common elements: the fire escaped initial attack, the fire was in a mountainous area with steep drainages, brush was a major fuel component, the fire-danger rating was extreme or very high, and the fire was a Type 3 incident and accompanied by an exceptional weather event.

With the twin anniversaries of Storm King and Yarnell Hill taking place, the group is calling on state and federal firefighting agencies to make changes to stem the loss of life.

Its key recommendations:

√ Establish uniformity in mapping systems.

√ Establish a standardized emergency communications protocol.

√ More thoroughly analyze the values of homes, private property and public lands against the risk to firefighters’ lives.

√ Develop an independent investigative body for serious accidents and fatalities.

√ Require direct involvement of agency administrators and program managers, especially when fires escape initial attack and incident management teams are mobilizing or are in transition.

With more development in Colorado’s urban-wildlands interface areas, the threat of wildfire is certain to grow. That’s why we were thankful to see the Legislature devote more resources to spotting and stopping fires when they first ignite — before they pose a significant threat to lives and property. State Sen. Steve King, the embattled candidate for Mesa County sheriff, played a key role in securing funding for a state aerial firefighting fleet.

Colorado will always be ripe for fires. The combination of hot, arid conditions and lightning strikes means another Storm King is always a possibility. But no more firefighters should have to die. Safety Matters offers some reasonable recommendations. We hope those recommendations find a receptive audience.


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