Ex-chief still haunted by Storm King
Jack Ward Thomas said he’s still haunted by the Storm King tragedy, and the 32 fire fatalities that would come that summer.Thomas was the chief of the U.S. Forest Service in the Clinton administration when the Storm King tragedy occurred. Now, he’s the Boone and Crockett professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana’s school of forestry in Missoula, a town with a long wildland firefighting tradition.”Sometimes still, in the night, a vision comes to me of charred bodies along the escape route on Storm King Mountain,” he wrote in his recently-published journals. “Those were my people.””I still have nightmares,” Thomas said. “… It was so real to talk to those kids’ parents and to talk to the people that survived. It wasn’t like watching a damned movie. It was up close and personal.”The morning after the blowup, Thomas came to Colorado. He met with smokejumper Eric Hipke, recovering from burns after narrowly escaping the blaze, and he saw to it that he got on a medical plane home to Seattle, at the Forest Service’s expense. He cried with Prineville Hotshot Superintendent Tom Shepard, paid the crew’s bar bill at the Grand Junction Hilton and agreed to their one wish: that they be sent home immediately. “When you went back and looked at Storm King, the first question that comes to your mind is, Why?” he said. “Why were these kids in that position? I think they’ve become considerably more selective about where they choose to put manpower and with what idea in mind. Then, it’s more acceptable now to say, ‘Ain’t gonna do it. It’s not a rational place to put people.'”Thomas’ no-nonsense approach and up-front-the-ranks background won him supporters from below. When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration blamed the agency for widespread management errors, Thomas took the harsh indictments with little complaint, even though colleagues said he was taking the fall for a fire the Forest Service technically wasn’t in charge of. “This is a scary business,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to have some nerve to be able to do it. But where is the fine line between appropriate aggression and too much? I think we tried to turn it around in the culture by saying, ‘If you’ve gotta make a mistake, make a mistake on the side of safety.’ “I don’t care how much a house is worth. We can build ’em a new one. We’re never going to get those kids back we lost at Storm King.”A grandfatherly man with a white beard and cherubic eyes, Thomas said he worries about firefighters being shortchanged by budget cuts. He tears up, his voice choked, as he talks about officials arguing about the cost of sandwiches on the fire lines, eaten by men and women risking their lives.”You can tell, it’s 10 years later and it still gets to me,” he said. “They were my people. When I talk about it, it comes back. It’s like being in combat. “And then, it’s not only that. It’s hard for everyone to remember this. I went straight from there, and one week later I’m in New Mexico where we’ve got three people killed in a helicopter wreck. Then four days later I’m somewhere else. It was like it went on and on and on. I thought, ‘My God, is there no damn end to this?’ In many cases, it was screwups that got people killed.”These days, years of drought and decades of accumulation of vegetation and debris in forests, accompanied by more and more houses built on the outskirts of wild places, has made for perhaps the most dangerous conditions ever for firefighters, Thomas said.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.