FONT

MORE STORIES


The 25th anniversary of the Storm King Mountain Tragedy is told from the perspective of Ralph and Jeannie Holtby, family of a lost firefighter

LON AUSTIN - The Wildland Firefighter's Monument at Ochoco Creek Park, crafted by David R. Nelson.

A severe thunderstorm is moving across the high desert on a warm summer evening. The ominous black sky is a backdrop for the lightening that has begun to strike in the nearby foothills. The storm quickly accelerates, and within a matter of minutes the rain begins its torrential downpour.

Twenty five years ago, on July 2, 1994, a similar situation was taking place in the urban interface of Glenwood Springs near Storm King Mountain, Colorado. However, in 1994 the state had been in a severe drought after a dry winter and a hot, dry summer. On July 2, dry lightning hit on a ridge on Storm King Mountain, and a small fire erupted. The fire smoldered for several days—leading to a series of unfortunate and tragic events.

Of the crews who were eventually dispatched to the fire since its inception on July 2, a combination of smokejumpers, helitack crew members, and hotshots were caught in a blowup on the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. A total of 14 wildland firefighters were unable to escape from the sudden blowup, which had started as a small plume of smoke. Of those 14, nine were Prineville Hotshots.

Ralph and Jeannie Holtby remember the moment they heard the news, and as they recall the 25th anniversary of that fateful day, some details are still very clear. Their daughter, Bonnie Holtby, was among the nine Prineville Hotshots who never came home alive. 

Ralph recalls that their daughter and the other eight crew members who perished were among the first few chopper loads to be ferried up the mountain to fight the fire.  (The survivors were flown up at a later time and, therefore, were not working in the same location). The nine along with the three smokejumpers had dug a fire line out to the lunch spot, sat down to eat, and then were headed back out along the fire line which they had just dug, when they were overtaken. {The group had moved about 1108 feet in 5 minutes} and had just reached the final really steep pitch where the fire overtook them.  Bonnie's remains were in this group , {Six people were found in a group 270 feet from the top, five people were found in a group 212 feet from the top, and a single person was found 121 feet from the top.} *South Canyon Fire Investigation (report).

Ralph and Jeannie had walked the same ridge after the incident, and it was evident that the group of firefighters was close to the top, maybe even two minutes from reaching the ridge.

"There was limited visibility and they didn't know what was down below them. They just didn't have enough time," indicated Jeannie.

"From where she was found to the top of the ridge was less than a few minutes. But they didn't have any time. It was so steep and so treacherous."

Superheated air and flames overtook the firefighters. To be a firefighter, one has to be in excellent condition, and these brave athletes are accustomed to tough conditions. But a blowup is a rapid transition from a low intensity ground fire to a fire that engulfs the entire vegetation complex with intense energy and high rates of speed.

Bonnie Holtby was a third generation firefighter. Born in 1973, she was an athlete with a team spirit. She was known by her peers as having great team morale in the face of the worst working conditions. She was in her third fire season in 1994. She told her mother, "You either love firefighting or you hate it." She loved it.

Her father was also once a firefighter and smokejumper. Bonnie's grandfather also had a lifetime career in the Forest Service. Ralph's first permanent job for the Forest Service was stationed on the Ochoco Forest at Rager Ranger Station.

"Firefighting can be a great job," Ralph added. He also knew the dangers and the risks of being a firefighter.

"As a young person, you just never think that you're going to die fighting fire."

Firefighters are very well trained but there are still dangers.

The Holtbys were active in the Prineville Hotshot Parent Committee, which was set up to memorialize the contributions of all firefighters. It was also set up in response to the contributions that poured in from all around the country after the disaster on Storm King Mountain. A sister committee was formed in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and their monument is situated in the community park with Storm King Mountain visible to the west. The monuments are each different, and two different artists constructed each statue. The Wildland Firefighter Monument in Prineville was sculpted by David R. Nelson.

The monument committee was made up of families of the 9 Prineville Hotshots, Forest Service employees, survivors, and some community members.

Once Ochoco Creek Park was chosen as the site for the monument, the committee developed a plan of how the site should feel. They agreed on a meandering path, 20 boulders to be placed along the path to represent the 20-man firefighting crew. They wanted 14 boulders to contain bios of the "Storm King 14" and the remaining 6 boulders to provide information about the different types of fire support. Aspen trees were chosen to provide a peaceful setting. The Colorado memorial includes the monument in the center, with the boulders in a circular fashion around the outside of the walkway, with identical bios.

The Prineville Wildland Fighters Monument is now maintained by Parks and Rec and is serviced yearly by groups of firefighters, associated families and community members.

The Holtbys have chosen to talk freely to the media about their experience. In a very touching and emotional moment, Jeannie explained their rationale.

"When they died, they became the World's. Everyone heard about Storm King, and they wanted to know. So they are no longer just our family---they belong to everybody."

A few weeks before the South Canyon Fire incident, another Redmond family lost their daughter, (a friend of Bonnie's) in a missing person incident. They never received closure.  When the Holtbys went to the site in Colorado for the first time, they had been called by the media and asked if they could accompany them. One family member was reluctant to have the media share their story.

"If it helps one person, it's worth it," responded Ralph.

Later the mother of the missing daughter thanked them for allowing the media to air their trip, because it helped them to hear Holby's story. They knew Bonnie, and it made a difference to them in their time of sorrow. Another letter from a member of the surrounding community of Glenwood Springs was especially touching to the couple.

"It's so sad and confusing to owe a debt that never can be repaid to such a remarkable group of young people as Bonnie and her crew—who never knew any of us.. .So we are trying to help as best as we can and keep remembering."

In Memory of the 14 Firefighters at Storm King Mountain, South Canyon Fire

Kathi Beck

Tami Bickett

Scott Blecha

Levi Brinkley

Robert Browning

Doug Dunbar

Terri Hagen

Bonnie Holtby

Rob Johnson

Jon Kelso

Don Mackey

Roger Roth

James Thrash

Richard Tyler


Quality local journalism takes time and money, which comes, in part, from paying readers. If you enjoy articles like this one, please consider supporting us.
(It costs just a few cents a day.)