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Storm King Mountain: 20 years later

Even after two decades, the tragedy still deeply affects family, friends and community members


by: KEVIN SPERL - The bronze statue above is part of the Hotshot memorial at the west end of Ochoco Creek Park honoring those who lost their lives in the Storm King Mountain fire.

“You are never prepared to lose a child - you just aren't," Prineville resident Marvin Kelso remarked. "It's not supposed to happen that way."

On July 6, 1994, 20 Prineville Hotshots, an elite firefighting crew, went out to battle one of the worst wildfires Colorado had ever witnessed. On Storm King Mountain, tragedy struck and nine of those firefighters lost their lives.

News spread around the country late that Wednesday and into the next day, shaking the Prineville community to its core. Crook County High School graduate Jon Kelso had died as had Terri Hagen and Bonnie Holtby of Prineville, Tammi Bickett of Powell Butte, Robert Johnson of Redmond, Levi Brinkley of Burns, Doug Dunbar of Springfield, Kathi Beck of Eugene, and Scott Blecha of Clatskanie.

"They were digging fire line downhill with fire below them in terrain and vegetation they weren't very familiar with," said Jon Kelso's brother, Greg, who had just concluded five years with the Hotshots when the tragedy occurred. "They got a really bad thunderstorm that kicked the winds up really high. They got a fire started below them and they couldn't get out of there fast enough."

Anita Kelso knew that her son Jon worked a very dangerous job. She knew the risks involved. Still, she never expected anything tragic to happen.

by: JASON CHANEY - Anita and Marvin Kelso hold a photo of their son Jon Kelso who was killed in the Storm King Mountain tragedy."The shock of it all - our first reaction was, 'This isn't real,'" she said. "But unfortunately, it was."

The 10 days that followed were especially tough as the family waited and waited for the bodies to return home.

"We couldn't plan a service because we didn't know when they were going to release the bodies," Marvin said. "Those 10 days were tough."

Lisa Clark, of Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch, was working on a small fire engine with the Prineville BLM when she first learned about the Storm King tragedy. She lost friends, people she had met on the job and in some cases worked with directly.

"You hear about fatalities in any kind of occupation and it's sad and it's tragic," she said. "You wonder what happened. But, when you get the word that people you know might have died, I remember it was just like getting hit by a brick wall."

Clark remembers information about the incident trickling back slowly. She and fellow firefighters knew some people had died, but nobody knew for sure who.

"You kind of go through your friends on the crew - who was it? What happened? Everyone was sort of quiet while they waited for the information to come through."

The Prineville community came together in the wake of the tragedy in a showing of grief and support for the family and friends of those who perished. Ward Rhoden stadium was filled to capacity for a memorial service in honor of the victims, while Greg Kelso remembers another touching gesture.

When the bodies finally arrived in Redmond, the Kelso family went to pick up Jon, a process that Greg estimates took them about three hours.

"In the time it took for that to happen, someone - I still don't know who did it - someone had gone up to the top of the grade, clear up by the airport, and every single post all the way through town, they had gone through and put out ribbons," he said. "That always struck me about how thoughtful people were. That was really nice."

After the memorial services concluded, Marvin Kelso said he was faced with a choice.

"You can either fight it and get angry, and beat yourself up and not take very good care of your family or your friends," he said, "or you can accept the fact that he is gone and what would he expect us to do? He would expect us to get on with our lives. He would not want us to go backwards."

Part of that moving on process involved the creation of a memorial in honor of the fallen firefighters. The families of the Hotshot victims were receiving money after the tragedy, Marvin recalls, and one of the parents decided the group should put the funds toward construction of a monument.

"We met and formed the Prineville Hotshot Parent Committee," he said. "It was really good for me personally, because I need to be outside and need to be doing things."

The parents were helped by many community members and Forest Service personnel as the project came together.

"All told, there were hundreds of different people who had a hand in making that monument work," Marvin said.

The memorial was dedicated in 1996. Winding through the western portion of Ochoco Creek Park, the memorial features a large bronze statue and small plaques honoring each victim.

The Storm King tragedy left its mark in other ways as time passed. The Wildland Firefighter Foundation was initially founded in the wake of the incident, then made official in 1999 as an active 501(c)3.

The main focus of the organization, according to their website, is to "help the families of firefighters killed in the line of duty and to assist injured firefighters and their families." The foundation operates a financial fund that provides assistance to the families of the fallen and to wildland and injured firefighters.

One year after the Storm King incident, local residents launched the Hotshot Memorial Run, a fundraiser benefiting the Wildland Firefighter Foundation that has endured to this day. The race was initially organized by Sharon McPhetridge and Lori Goodman, of Prineville Athletic Club.

The two women knew the fallen Hotshots, since many of them had worked out at the club, and the tragedy hit them hard.

"It was so heart-wrenching and sad," McPhetridge said.

In the days that followed, fellow club member and friend Bill Cooley approached McPhetridge and Goodman with the idea of hosting a memorial run. By the following summer, the idea had become a reality and the two women coordinated the event for the next 14 years.

Important lessons emerged from the Storm King incident as well.

"A lot came out of the tragedy," Clark stated, "from concepts of building downhill line construction to communications. A lot of lessons that we learned are in our annual refreshers."

Marvin and Anita Kelso chose to move on after losing their son. That doesn't mean in the 20 years since that they have forgotten the pain they felt that day.

"To have a 20th annual or anything like that, it just brings back things that I have dealt with," Marvin said. "I am already over losing him as much as I can possibly be," he said, "but I have a real hard time talking about it."

The couple has yet to go through all of Jon's things. They have tried before, but it becomes so difficult, they have to walk away.

"I don't know if we'll ever do anything with those things," Anita said.




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