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Remembering the Storm King Mountain fire

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In memoriam:

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Kathi Beck

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Tamera Bickett

Scott Blecha

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Levi Brinkley

Robert Browning

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Douglas Dunbar

Terri Hagen

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Roger Roth

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Richard Tyler  

By Fred Malo

July 6 will mark the 23rd anniversary of the Storm King Mountain Fire just outside Glenwood Springs, as tragic and momentous an event as this area has ever seen. Fourteen firefighters were killed. For this innocent from back east, it was heart-wrenching and intimidating. I was the Glenwood Post’s man on the scene.

I was a lowly stringer for the Post, paid by the line with no salary. Managing Editor Dennis Webb had no choice when he got word of the fire. Both of his staff reporters were out on other assignments. He had to send me.

The summer of 1994 was hot and dry, just like 2017, and a bad fire season. I had been out on wildfires earlier that summer and they covered many acres, but there were no injuries.

I knew something was up when up when I arrived at Canyon Creek Estates and there were all these state and national reporters and television cameras around. I soon found out there were dead firefighters up on the mountain.

The fire actually started July 2 when lightning hit a tree. For a while, the tree was the only thing burning and the fire remained under control until July 5 when the Canyon Creek Estates residents became concerned and firefighters began fighting the fire in earnest. By July 6, the wildfire was out of control and Hotshots, Smokejumpers, and Helitack firefighters were called in from all over the country.

The firefighters actually were not directly involved with the wildfire when they were overcome. They were digging firelines between the fire and Glenwood Springs. One place you don’t want to be is uphill and downwind from a wall of fire. You cannot outrun such a wildfire. The firefighters knew that, but they got caught off guard by a sudden and unexpected wind shift.

I learned a lot about how the big boys cover the news that day. You find out what the rules are and proceed to break every one of them. Setting the rules and in charge of the scene was Garfield Country Undersheriff Levi Burris. The first rule he set was do not go up the mountain to where the dead firefighters were. So, of course, that’s the first thing they did.

I did not follow them as I figured I would have to do business with Burris again, but the reporters described the scene when they came back down. What they saw was 12 fire tents, silver fire resistant sheets that firefighters throw over themselves when they are overrun by a fire, with nine Prineville (Ore.) Hotshots, two McCall (Ida.) Smokejumpers, and one Missoula (Mont.) Smokejumper underneath them. Two Grand Junction Helitack firefighters were on the other side of a ridge and out of sight.

I started to think about who was under those tents. These were young people who would travel a thousand miles to save a city where they probably didn’t even know anybody. These are the best we have – and now they’re gone.

I recalled a firefighter’s training session where the instructors were teaching them how to use their tents. They appreciated the gesture, but they knew the tents wouldn’t do much good if they were engulfed by a raging inferno. With a bit of gallows humor, they’d throw the tents over themselves and call out, “We’re potatoes.”

The horror.

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