Dry weather reminder of fatal fire
Vail, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” On a warm and dry Friday morning, the wind is blowing at the head of the Storm King Memorial Trail.
Sandy Dunbar knows it’s nothing like the conditions on July 6, 1994. That’s the day her 22-year-old son, Doug, died battling a vicious wildfire. The winds were blowing much harder, up to 45 miles per hour, creating a deadly wall of smoke and fire that blew up over Storm King Mountain.
Doug was one of 14 firefighters who perished. They now live on in memory as the Storm King 14.
On Friday ” the fire’s 13th anniversary ” a mother’s pain of losing her son is just as real as 1994. Tears still well up in Dunbar’s eyes as she talks about Doug’s big smile and witty sense of humor.
Returning to the site of the tragedy each year can be difficult but, on July 6, she can’t imagine being anywhere else.
Dunbar wears a light gray, ash-colored T-shirt with a purple-ribbon logo on the front that reads “In Memory of Doug Dunbar.” On the back is artwork on the back Doug designed himself for the Prineville (Ore.) Hot Shot Crew.
Hanging from a chain around her neck is a sterling silver, heart-shaped pendant that says, “The Heart Remembers.”
“Many times I’ve stayed up there until the actual time (of Doug’s death), around 3:15 and 3:20,” she says. “And many times I’ve come down with quite a sunburn.”
The hike up Storm King Mountain is not an easy one, especially with Colorado’s dry July heat. Dunbar imagines how difficult it was for her son walking up the trail as fire burned near, carrying anywhere from 30 to 60 pounds of gear.
“The big thing that irritates me to death, and also saddens me, is that they didn’t run and they didn’t put down their equipment,” Dunbar says. “I know they didn’t because they would have been in trouble.”
The fire started after lightning ignited a tree near Canyon Creek during a summer dry spell. Doug was one of 52 firefighters and smokejumpers called in to fight the fire.
“The biggest thing is they didn’t get the weather report,” Dunbar says. “There was some breakdown in communication. They didn’t all have radios.”
Dunbar usually hikes up to Doug’s cross, placed on the mountain along with 13 others.
“This particular day, I really like to concentrate on Doug,” she says. “I just want to be here on the day. Sometimes it inspires me to do things.”
This year, an impending hip-replacement surgery keeps Dunbar positioned near the trailhead with Ginny Morris, a friend she’s made during her visits to Glenwood Springs.
Instead of hiking and adding mementos to Doug’s cross, she’s focusing her energy on promoting the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.
“Next year I’ll go up when I get a new hip,” she says. “I’m like the bionic woman.”
Sitting at the Storm King trailhead Friday, Dunbar comes across several friends and acquaintances she has met through the fire.
Ken Brinkley ” whose 22-year-old son Levi Brinkley was one of the Storm King 14 ” is making his way downhill when he recognizes a familiar face.
“I usually just come in and sneak out,” he says. “I was tickled when I saw Sandy sitting down there.”
The night before, Brinkley camped out at the site, then hiked up at 4:30 a.m. Friday to spend some alone time where his son last walked.
“I tried to light a candle, but it kept going out,” he says. “At his funeral, we played ‘Long as I Can See the Light’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival.”
Brinkley and Dunbar make their way to the rusted metal registration box at the trailhead. Visitors sign in and comment, and leave items in memory of the Storm King 14.
A round can of Copenhagen tobacco.
Half of a small plastic football with the message, “I know you’re keeping the fires down in Heaven. Love you, Levi,” written in silver metallic marker on one side and “I miss you, Levi. Your Bro, Kent,” on the other.
One camouflaged fleece glove.
Dunbar’s faded silk sunflowers tied to the registration box stand with a purple ribbon in Doug’s memory.
An hour or so later, Steve Siscoe, of Dugger, Ind., stops by the box with his family to sign in before hiking the trail. Dunbar recalls meeting him more than a decade previous.
Siscoe recalls how he was called in from Indiana 13 years ago ” one day after the Storm King 14’s deaths ” to assist with the fire.
“Dad got to fly up in a helicopter the last time he was here,” Siscoe says, to his two teenage daughters. “It was quite an experience. When we went back we were told this was a very memorable, historic fire.”
Siscoe and his crew were scheduled to arrive July 6, 1994, but they were held off the fire line because of the canyon’s dry conditions. A day later, Siscoe and his crew went to work, knowing 14 firefighters had died a day prior.
“We cut the line right above where the fatalities happened,” he says. “They were able to call in water drops and helicopters, and that enabled us to get the fire cut.”
Before heading up the trail, Dunbar asks Siscoe and his family for a favor. Because of her hip, she’s not going to make it up the mountain this year.
Starting to cry, she asks if they can place a pin from Oregon ” that reads “The Beaver State” ” on a ribbon on Doug’s cross.
“I would be very, very happy to do that,” Siscoe says.
Dunbar is relieved. And she’s thankful one of Doug’s fellow Storm King firefighters can do the job she can’t this year.
“That little bit right there will be enough,” she says.