It's awful enough reliving the Storm King Mountain tragedy when the milestone anniversaries roll around as one did this holiday weekend.
But occasionally — and not for some years now, thankfully — the tragedy is magnified when wildland firefighters are killed on the job. When a major-fatality fire happens, it further scuffs the hope we once held that the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs would be the ultimate object lesson in firefighter safety.
A three-part series by the Sentinel's Dennis Webb revisits the aftermath of the fire in which 14 firefighters were killed. The fire — driven by high winds — "blew up" on July 6, 1994 and raced up the slopes of Storm King Mountain, overtaking firefighters before they could get to an escape route.
One of the exasperating findings of an investigation that followed is that weather forecasts indicated winds associated with a cold front would be a problem. But it appears that the forecast never made it to at least some of the firefighters who died.
The South Canyon Fire came four years after the deadly Dude Fire killed six firefighters north of Payson, Arizona. The firefighters were inmates and a guard from Perryville Prison.
In 1991, Paul Gleason published a paper on a new safety model called LCES, for "lookouts, communication, escape routes and safety zones" after his experiences on the Dude Fire.
Yet, a communication breakdown still occurred on Storm King Mountain. And fatalities have occurred since. As Webb noted, the most recent and most glaring example was in 2013 when 19 firefighters died in Arizona.
The South Canyon Fire did lead to some changes. An interagency team was formed to investigate the fatalities and contributing factors. The subsequent 1995 Federal Wildland Fire Policy and Program Review directed federal wildland fire agencies to establish fire management qualifications standards to improve firefighter safety.
The bottom line is that every tragedy forces officials to go back to the drawing board and assess where safety can be improved.
Chris Cuoco, a weather forecaster, summed up how we all feel about the dangerous business of fighting wildland fires.
"... there isn't a hill out there, there isn't a stand of trees, there isn't even a house or neighborhood that's worth somebody's life, a firefighter's life," he told Webb. "They're not there to die doing what they're doing. They're there to do what they can do and go home at the end of the day."
Webb wraps up his series tomorrow with the story of an aerospace engineer devoted to developing safer fire shelters after his brother was killed on Storm King Mountain.
Technological advancements — better equipment, better forecasts and better communication — will certainly be important in keeping firefighters safe on the job. Fires are getting more ferocious with the effects of climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Wildfires in the western United States have been increasing in frequency and duration since the mid-1980s. Between 1986 and 2003, wildfires occurred nearly four times as often, burned more than six times the land area, and lasted almost five times as long when compared to the period between 1970 and 1986.
It's been several years since multiple firefighters have perished in a single fire incident. Somewhere, somehow, the lessons of Storm King have played a role.