Remembering the fallen Storm King Mountain firefighters
As spring turns to summer, many of our first thoughts are of spending time in our vast tracts of public lands, fishing, camping and enjoying the outdoors.
We have the ability to turn these thoughts into realities because of the hard work and dedication of all the men and women who protect and preserve these lands from wildfires.
Each year, tens of thousands of people work in the air, on the ground and on coordinating the massive effort it takes to combat the numerous fires of the season. These people come from every walk of life. Many of them are college students earning money to help pay for school, contractors whose career pays to support their families, and the federal employees who shift the focus of their work every summer. Traveling far from home and being away from their families is part of the lifestyle they choose to accept.
While on the road, their accommodations are far from luxurious. They sleep in tents at fire camps located anywhere from a campground next to a fire to rural high school football fields or any place they find themselves when they have a moment to rest.
Many of these brave citizens have paid the ultimate price preventing the loss of lives, homes and nature. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the devastating fire on Storm King Mountain. In early July, a red flag warning was issued near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, which was quickly followed by a small lightning-sparked fire. Under typical conditions, this small fire would not have been noteworthy, but with a combination of a drought and dry weather conditions, it would prove to be the start of one of the most tragic wildfires in recent history.
Initially, because of its size, location and the presence of other more aggressive blazes in the area, this fire was not made a priority. By mid-day on July 4, the Storm King Fire had only burned a few acres, reinforcing its rating of a low spread potential.
As the day wore on, the fire did begin to spread, and the decision to send a response was made. On the fifth, a small crew hiked into the fire through steep terrain, cleared a helicopter landing zone and began cutting fire line.
The original crew worked all day and was replaced by eight smokejumpers. These smokejumpers continued the work of containing the fire. On the sixth, the BLM and Forest Service crews returned and resumed attacking the blaze alongside the smokejumpers.
That morning, the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew left Grand Junction, Colorado, headed for Storm King Mountain. Upon arrival, the Prineville crew was split up. Eight of the nine were sent to the west flank, which was choked with gambel oak. The remaining member of the crew was sent to the ridge line, ultimately saving his life.
Those members that were sent west were given a false sense of security seeing the green leaves of the gambel oak. Not knowing, in spite of its lush appearance, it had the potential to burn explosively at any time.
By the afternoon of the sixth, the fire activity had increased, and the fire fighters began to experience their first real concerns. Within no time, the combination of cold, dry winds, steep slopes, flammable vegetation and limited visibility caused the most catastrophic loss of fire fighters lives in a single wildfire in the last 100 years.
That day, 14 brave and highly skilled individuals, including 12 firefighters and two helitack crew members, lost their lives on Storm King Mountain
Prineville Hotshots: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Douglas Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson and Jon Kelso
Missoula Smokejumper: Don Mackey
McCall Smokejumpers: Roger Roth and Jim Thrash.
Helitack: Robert Browning Jr. and Richard Tyler
Twenty-five years later, we still feel the loss of those amazing young women and men who lost their lives as Prineville Hotshots.
Alex Robertson is the last remaining member for the Prineville Hotshot Crew sent to Storm King Mountain on July 6. We are fortunate to still have Alex not only living in our community but also still working to keep all of us protected from wildfires. Here are some thoughts from Alex about that tragic day.
"July 6, 2019, will mark the 25th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain where we lost 14 of best and brightest wildland firefighters, including nine members of the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew based out of Prineville.
As a former member of the Prineville Hotshot crew, I reflect on the sadness and tremendous loss that our community of Prineville lost that day and the enormous premature loss of nine courageous and talented young men and women.
I also reflect on how far the wildland firefighting system has come with positive progress in safety and how we take care of our firefighters today versus 25 years ago.
The South Canyon Fire, where 14 of our highest trained and those considered to be the best of the best firefighters were lost, forced the wildland firefighting agencies to take a good hard look at themselves and how they do business in order to learn and prevents another tragedy like this from happening again.
Some of the many positive changes that came post South Canyon are: a new leadership training curriculum and starts early in an employee's career based off military models that prepares our firefighters to be leaders and decision makers in chaotic environments well before they get put into those positions.
There was also a cultural shift in how our agencies look at incidents. Instead of looking for cause and assigning blame, we started to embrace a learning culture and explore human factors. We started asking questions like, why did it make sense to them at the time to do what they did?
We have embraced technology to better inform our firefighters on weather, available resources, and current and expected fuel conditions that may affect fire behavior. Lastly, in my opinion, one of the biggest changes that has come from the South Canyon Fire was the development of Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. The interagency center focuses on compiling data on all accidents, injuries and fatalities that happen in wildland fire and sharing this information amongst the wildland community to learn and continually improve our processes to prevent something like the South Canyon Fire from happening again.
The Center was the first step for the wildland firefighting agencies to admit that fighting fire was dangerous work and that we should be prepared for a tragedy to happen in the future. The Center dove into issues like emotional intelligence and how the stress of the profession affected an employee's ability to be at their best performance when it really matters.
While wildland firefighting has not become less dangerous 25 years later, the sacrifices that those young men and women made has certainly made wildland firefighting today better for all. We will always remember the sacrifice they made to help us be better in the future."
Fire and Aviation Staff Officer
Central Oregon Fire Management Service
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the events on Storm King Mountain, our community is coming together in remembrance of those who lost their lives.
Organizations and members of our community are working with Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the closest populated area to the fire, to put on simultaneous events that will include a barbecue, fundraiser and opportunities to share memories.
We are excited to have the Forest Supervisor Shane Jefferies, who will be sharing insights on the wildfire and what we have learned from the event. It is important as a society we learn from our tragedies so lives lost are not lost in vain.
Location: Wildland Firefighters Monument at Ochoco Creek Park
Time: 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. Saturday, July 6
$5 suggested donations for barbecue lunch