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June 12, 2014
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Vail Daily column: Pilgrimage to Storm King

Storm King is sacred ground, best viewed while bear crawling past the crosses, lungs and legs on fire, scrambling for the top so close, so close. …

The 20th anniversary of the wildfire just west of Glenwood Springs that killed 14 firefighters is July 6. These group fatalities on the line come roughly every decade, most recently last June 30 in Arizona, despite all the “never agains,” “lessons learned” and changes in wildland firefighting practices.

At root, it’s dangerous work that can get real confusing real quick. We can scratch our heads all we like afterward, and we do. Alas, the odds are we would have made the same mistakes in hindsight, much as we might congratulate ourselves in the fiction that we absolutely would have made different choices in those circumstances.

I’ve made this little pilgrimage up the mountain at South Canyon several times since moving just up the highway to Eagle. A couple of times, I’ve done it with hotshot crews and others as part of an exercise designed to teach and really to develop more respect for what the crews on this fire went through in 1994.

The organizers took small groups through each decision from the beginning and had people consider the conditions while deciding what they would have done with the limited information available at each stage to the people making these choices at the time.

Now, these experiences have come on cool May days before fire season gets rolling — nothing like the heat, endless hours on the line, and sudden fury when this thing blew up.

Someone who was there during the fire also invariably attended these trainings. The evening at dinner at the Hotel Colorado after running through the drill didn’t fail to tear everyone up, and these were not soft people.

The most memorable moments for me were at the low point of the fireline, where most of the men and women who were killed happened to be when a little cold front came through at just the wrong time and whipped the wildfire into hell.

“Read the card, and then we’re not going to talk about it,” our guide would say. “You are going to actually act out what you decide.”

The card would tell you the fire just blew up below you, and I think it was seven minutes along fireline through only partially burned brush to the nearest safety zone at the top. With the card, the stopwatch started. Seven minutes to survival.

I was a little younger than I am today. On a cool May day, clear as can be and me understanding immediately what needed to be done.

I ran.

At the end of this scramble the slope gets even steeper, and I was down to my hands passing the crosses where Storm King took its toll.

There all lingering judgment about their decisions ended. I put everything into beating the stopwatch, but this only was a drill. In another minute I’d be standing at the top, well, actually hands on knees, puffing and close as could be to puking. Even in spring, no actual fire, not everyone made it to the top in time. I barely did.

I was fortunate in my day to be on what I still consider the best crew of its kind in the nation, working at the epicenter for nasty wildfire in Southern California, where canyons blow out routinely and decisions such as had to be made here pretty much are made for you.

I never had to run for my life or unfurl my “shake-’n’-bake” aluminum foil shelter. But I still have memories of the line — the fatigue, heat, smoke, often darkness and occasionally that gut-clenching realization you are in the wrong place. Also long, long shifts working under a more or less clear sky, as these firefighters were, before it all roared up.

The colder truth is they broke several cardinal rules, and I’m sure the lessons delivered with people’s lives saved many others. Still, too soon, the Thirty Mile Fire in Washington killed four firefighters in 2001, and then last year’s Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters in Arizona. In each, mistakes made in the utter confusion of the moment revealed themselves only after the smoke cleared.

Beneath this level of human frailty — which everyone who has done this work shares — lies something in the souls of these firefighters who died in this dangerous service that’s worthy of our full respect and honor.

I will honor them in my small way climbing past their crosses again. Many more will at a service in Glenwood Springs’ Two Rivers Park at 5 p.m. July 6, appropriately a Sunday.

We’ll do this knowing better, but still praying that this never happens again.

Editor and Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at drogers@vaildaily.com or 970-748-2920.


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The VailDaily Updated Jun 13, 2014 04:16PM Published Jun 13, 2014 06:05PM Copyright 2014 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.