In the line of fire
GLENWOOD SPRINGS — We live with the heat, the dust, the smoke. They live with the fire. We complain, but they do the work as volunteers for local fire departments and as red card carrying federal firefighters on hotshot crews.
Wildland firefighters deserve our respect. For many rural homeowners in Colorado this summer, the only thing that stands between them and disaster are those men and women firefighters in protective clothing and steel-toed boots. But sometimes disaster strikes them, too, as it did during another hot, dry July on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs 18 years ago.
The summer of 2012 in Colorado we’ve had thousands of firefighters carrying chainsaws and wielding their Pulaskis, which is a special firefighter tool that’s half pick, half ax. On the Front Range we’ve had the 130-square-mile High Park Fire west of Fort Collins and the ongoing 28-square-mile Waldo Canyon Fire adjacent to Colorado Springs that’s torched 350 homes. Locally there’s been the Stateline Fire, the Lightner Creek Fire, the 10,000-acre Weber Fire, and the 24,000-acre Little Sand Fire still burning north of Pagosa Springs.
Ten years ago we had the Missionary Ridge and Valley fires. This summer is the state’s worst wildland fire season in a decade. The loss of homes and private property is tragic, yet thankfully no firefighters have died. In July 1994 that was not the case.
When lightning strikes out of a western sky, the sound of rolling thunder bounces off boulders and rumbles deep down canyon walls. A snag on fire at midnight can become by noon a roaring blaze racing through dry timber, tall oak brush, or sweet-scented sage. Caused by lightning, extinguished by fire crews, western wildfire is a natural occurrence in the Rocky Mountains. A century ago a windborne fire could run its course, but now Westerners live in homes set in ponderosa pines — the wildland urban interface — myself included.
The Lightner Creek Fire was only 3˝ miles away from hundreds of families who live in Durango West I and II. We are all grateful for the quick response of the fire crews from Durango Fire & Rescue Authority, the Upper Pine River and Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection Districts, and the Interagency Type III Team.
In July 1994 prevailing winds brought the Storm King Fire dangerously close to Glenwood Springs. Fourteen firefighters died on a bony, rocky ridge near Storm King Mountain within view of Interstate 70 and the Colorado River. Three weeks later I hiked that ridge with local fire Capt. Bill Harding, and like many others I spent a few years trying to understand what happened and why such brave young men and women lost their lives.
Within 12 months volunteers created a memorial park along the Colorado River, an interpretive memorial trail takes hikers to the exact places where the Storm King 14 died, and an anniversary memorial event paid tribute to their families. Grateful citizens and firemen all over the United States contributed $135,000 to the Storm King monument fund, a substantial amount in donated goods and services, and $425,000 to a disaster and scholarship fund for families of the 14.
In the 20th century West there were major fires and deaths beginning with the famous 1910 fire in Montana and Idaho that seared 3 million acres. That fire helped create the modern U.S. Forest Service.
Wildland fire science was in its infancy, and the vagaries of fire behavior in canyons and in grasslands, with changing temperature, humidity and wind, had not been studied. Then came the Mann Gulch Fire in 1949, 20 miles north of Helena, Mont., where 13 smokejumpers lost their lives in a fire blowup when a steep and peaceful canyon became a death trap. Before it was over, the fire had burned 4,500 acres and taken 450 men to control it.
Fire defies gravity. Unlike any living thing in nature, it can run faster uphill. An updraft and fire whirls burst a hillside into a moving wall of flame 30 feet tall that caused the young Mann Gulch smokejumpers, most of them World War II veterans, to die. Historically, the Mann Gulch Fire is important because for the first time attention began to be paid to fire behavior, but it took years to commemorate those lives lost.
Finally in 1991 at the Smokejumpers Base in Missoula, visitors and family members came together to dedicate an L-shaped granite wall built by jumpers and dedicated to wildland firefighters. The National Wildland Firefighters Memorial contains plaques with the names of those who died at Mann Gulch. Wayne Williams spearheaded the memorial. He said, “For a project, it is probably the most meaningful and emotional I have ever worked on.”
By an ironic twist of fate Williams, a jumper himself, was in Glenwood Springs the week of July 4, 1994, for another lightning-caused ignition in a dangerously dry year. He had sought out family members of those who had died in Mann Gulch. Now for the Bureau of Land Management he would do the same in Glenwood, because on July 6 by 4 p.m. wind gusts increased to 45 miles per hour and the wind funneled up South Canyon off the Colorado River just as it had funneled up Mann Gulch on the Missouri River.
Twelve-foot-high tinder-dry Gambel oak brush exploded into flames. Smokejumpers from Missoula, Mont., and McCall, Idaho, hotshots from Prineville, Ore., and two helicopter attack (helitack) crew members desperately sought shelter. Four women and 10 men will live forever on that mountainside.
Through the smoke in perilous updrafts, airplane pilots tried to drop fire retardant on reflective silver fire shelters. Thirty-five survived. But for 14, it was too late. Two firefighters died only 11 seconds from safety on the other side of the ridge. Wristwatches melted. Williams made sure that the bodies were not disturbed until the investigating team arrived. For the next two weeks he manned an exclusive telephone hotline to console family members. The deep grief process had begun.
Today granite crosses mark where those firefighters fell. The oakbrush has grown back, and interpretive plaques help visitors understand the life of wildland firefighters. Fire crews from throughout the West and firefighters from throughout the nation visit Glenwood Springs and hike the interpretive trail. The living have remembered the dead and therefore the dead go on living.
From Storm King hard lessons were learned. Now there’s more interagency cooperation, faster communication, revisions to the firefighters’ Red Book, or fire operations guide, and greater emphasis on safety. We’ll need that this year. Homes can be rebuilt. Lost lives cannot.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at email@example.com.