Remembering Storm King 14
Firefighters never forgotten at Storm King Memorial Trail
A clump of lavender wildflowers watches over the memorial site of Don Mackey. His photo peers from beneath his marble cross as a small lizard darts by, stopping long enough to pose for its own photo, then skittering away.
There’s a knife and a military doll, numerous caps, trinkets and coins scattered around the cross that reads “Don Mackey 1960-1994.”
Twelve marble crosses are on the steep slope among thick scrub oak, baked by the searing summer sun. Another two crosses are tucked into a deep rocky ravine. There’s only one thing that is engraved into every cross — the year 1994.
It was a scorching summer day 19 years ago when a raging wildfire, fueled by a perfect storm of menacing ingredients, exploded into an unimaginable, out-of-control, hellish inferno that doomed everything in its path.
Fourteen firefighters were in its path. And now their memories live on with those 14 marble crosses and the mementoes left by so many.
The Storm King Memorial Trail is like no other trail. The hike is challenging with sparse shade and unspectacular scenery.
There’s only one reason this trail exists — actually, 14 reasons.
Back in 1994, two days after Independence Day, 12 firefighters wearing thick, protective clothing, packed with heavy gear, fled for their lives up the steep slope, through choking scrub oak and rugged terrain. Two others chose another escape route toward a rocky ravine.
On this fateful day, the fire was too fast, too powerful, too deadly. No one would escape.
Every late spring and summer, wildfire becomes a reality somewhere across the West. And this year, another devastating tragedy has shaken the West.
A huge wildfire turned deadly in Arizona, killing 19 firefighters. The memory of 1994 and Storm King was reignited. The unmerciful nature of the wildfire can be unpredictable and, like 19 years ago, can be deadly and tragic. Now, in Arizona, 19 names will forever be linked to tragedy and wildfire. Just like Storm King.
Back in 1994, crews came to fight the Storm King fire — officially named the South Canyon Fire.
For the Storm King 14, they came to fight a wildfire started by a single bolt of lightning that smoldered for days before winds fanned the flames. The blaze quickly started to chew through the parched landscape between Glenwood Springs and New Castle.
Arriving at the top of the Storm King Trail is a moving experience.
A few yards away from Scott Blecha’s memorial site, a pair of craggy trees are cloaked in T-shirts, caps, patches, hard hats and other items left by firefighters who made the two-plus-mile hike to pay tribute to their fallen colleagues. Most of the shirts are faded from harsh winters, wind, rain and unrelenting sun.
It’s a fitting tribute to these men and women who died on July 6, 1994.
With the arms of their crosses nearly touching, the memorial sites of Doug Dunbar and Roger Roth show that they died side by side. Below and above their sites are another 10 crosses, most close to the ridge where escape and life would be granted.
Yellow and purple wildflowers are blooming next to a few sites, almost looking like they were planted for them. These flowers will soon be wilted by the punishing sun.
Each site offers a tiny glimpse of who these courageous firefighters were. Family and friends have made the grueling hike over the years to leave personal items for their loved ones.
A pair of skis form an “X” at Levi Brinkley’s memorial site. The skis have been here for nearly as long as the trail.
There is a peaceful clutter at each site. Trinkets, coins, American flags, Skoal cans, beads, dolls, tiny toy cars, sunglasses, bottles and much more surround the crosses.
At the site of Terri Hagen, her Native American heritage is represented.
Five “pals” of James Thrash made a shiny silver plaque for their fallen friend. It’s engraved with lyrics from a James Taylor song. The plaque begins with the engraving “In memory of our friend …” The five “pals” have their names at the end.
Firefighters from around the nation have made this trek to pay homage to 14 men and women they never met.
Every summer, firefighting crews passing through on Interstate 70 will make a point to stop, make the hike and pay their respects. The small parking area can be seen filled with fire trucks from around the West throughout the summer.
It’s been 19 years and few reminders remain of the fire that took these 14 firefighters. At the top of the ridge that the 12 desperately tried to make, a burned-out blackened stump serves as an eerie and constant reminder of this deadly blaze.
These 14 memorial sites are exactly where they perished sometime around 5 p.m. on July 6, 1994.
Getting to some of the sites even serves as a reminder of their doomed escape attempt. The trail is steep and rugged, making footing difficult.
Blecha’s site is closest to the top of the ridge. Agonizingly close to escaping the powerful blaze.
It’s impossible to imagine what they faced on July 6, 1994. Impossible.
Wildfire is an annual reality. Some rage for weeks, while others are quickly doused. Some destroy homes, and others leave thousands and thousands of forest-land acres blackened and leveled.
Every year, wildland firefighters come to fight them. At some point during the wildfire season, they probably think of the Storm King 14.
Back on July 6, 1994, firefighters came to fight a seemingly benign blaze near Glenwood Springs. Now, there are 14 marble crosses at the top of a trail that will forever remind us of the deadly power of fire.
It’s a trail that sadly, only exists for 14 reasons.