Taking the time to remember the Prineville Hotshots
Visitors strolled the Wildland Firefighter Memorial at Ochoco Creek Park, looking at each of the individual plaques that line a flower- and tree-adorned, winding sidewalk.
Not far from the memorial and the iconic bronze statue honoring the memory of the Prineville Hotshots who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994, a few light-green Prineville Hotshot rigs boxed in the small portion of the park where people gathered for a special service. Among them were approximately a couple dozen current Prineville Hotshots, clad in blue shirts
Saturday, on the 25th anniversary of a the Storm King Mountain tragedy that killed 14 wildland firefighters, including nine Prineville Hotshots, people gathered to recognize and remember the fallen firefighters and discuss what improvements have occurred since that day to ensure such an event never happens to wildland firefighters again.
"It is a pretty sobering thing," said local Chamber of Commerce director Kim Daniels. She acknowledged that she did not live in Prineville when the tragedy occurred 25 years ago, but through thorough research in preparation for the anniversary event, came to understand its significance and how it devastated the Prineville community.
"It is something we need to remember," she said.
Daniels said the event was spawned by Crook County Judge Seth Crawford engaging her a few months back. He reminded her that the 25th anniversary was coming soon and together they worked to put together what was ultimately a memorial ceremony.
The memorial featured several guest speakers, as well as an open mic portion where several firefighters shared emotional memories of their interactions with the Hotshots prior to the Storm King tragedy. A barbecue followed, with food donated by Prineville's grocery stores and the Kiwanis Club of Prineville serving the meal.
Proceeds from the barbecue, and donation boots set aside, would go to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, an organization that was formed after the Storm King incident to help the families of fallen firefighters as they deal with the loss of a loved one.
Sam Pearcy, who launched the Rips-N-Lips event to support the Wildland Firefighter Foundation and launched a fundraising campaign last year to repair the vandalized memorial statue in Ochoco Creek Park, spoke about the organization, explaining that it helps fill the gap between when a firefighter is lost and when the federal government is able to provide aid to their family.
Shane Jeffries also served as a guest speaker. The current Ochoco National Forest Supervisor said that he did not live in Prineville at the time of the Storm King tragedy, but he was living in McCall, Idaho, the residence of Jim Thrash, who was also lost in the fire.
"To come to Central Oregon and now to be working here in Prineville is to better understand the impact it had on this community," he said. "It has been humbling."
Jeffries went on to note that the events of Storm King spurred some positive changes in how wildfire fighting was approached going forward. To illustrate that point, he told the audience about a training "staff ride" he attended, joined by four Storm King survivors and several relatively young and inexperienced firefighters.
The survivors took questions from those firefighters that day, Jeffries recalls, and one of them asked what they wanted the Prineville Hotshots to be remembered for.
"The first answer to that was that we were a resilient crew," Jeffries said. He then told the audience the second answer given.
"It was a group that changed the culture of wildland firefighting in all of the wildland firefighting services across the country."