Field of nightmares
Ten years ago today, 14 wildland firefighters died in a blowup within sight of I-70 near Glenwood Springs. Today family and friends of the fallen will make the anniversary pilgrimage to the granite crosses bearing each firefighter’s name at the spot they perished. Reporters will be bused in to pick over the lessons of Storm King, most recent double-digit loss on the line and assuredly not the last, sorry to say. If the pattern holds, we’ll have another of these before the 25th anniversary. New checklists, reports and preaching safety may help, as they have in the past after killer fires. But firefighting is dangerous work in frequently confusing, fast-changing conditions, and humans make mistakes. This is inevitable.I hiked in Sunday, the Fourth of July, to pay my respects at each cross, to hike the same fireline where 12 of those who died had scrambled in their doomed race for the ridgetop, to consider my own career on a hotshot crew based near Santa Barbara that ended 20 fire seasons ago. I left the notebook behind and tugged on an old crew ball cap. This was no spectator event for me. Nine of the deceased were Prineville, Ore., hotshots. My own band of brothers, and sisters; four of those who died on the line were women. As soon as I returned home, I called my superintendent to thank him for never getting us into a similar predicament. Mark Linane, who led the Los Padres Hotshots for 27 of this original hotshot crew’s first 50 years, has been to the fire site six times to help teach firefighting leaders how to avoid their own Storm Kings.One of the lessons involves a stopwatch and starting point about where the dozen finally realized they needed to get out. None of the trainees in Linane’s sessions, fit and fresh as they are for the exercise, has made it over the ridgetop in time to stay alive. Of the doomed group, only smokejumper Eric Hipke made it, knocked down at the crest by the heat wave ahead of the flames. He comes back to teach, too.I was struck on my first visit five years ago by how small the canyon and slope are in real life, after I had studied the investigation’s report back in 1994 and later digested John Maclean’s fine book “Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire.” One of the newspaper accounts of the fire this past week mentions this ordinary scale, too. But I had stopped then, with my wife and children, at the observation point a ridge away from where the firefighters died. It wasn’t until I hiked the line Sunday that I comprehended that watching from afar can be misleading. With the flames racing toward them at 35 feet a second, this was a long, hard haul. An eternity.What struck me – coldly, I realize – was that for all the mistakes the firefighters made fighting this blaze, if they had reacted just a couple of minutes sooner they would have gotten away alive with breaking almost every hallowed rule of wildland firefighting. These 12 who died were in precisely the worst place at the worst time, and they still had a chance.I suspect, strongly, that they and others had fought fire this way before and gotten away with it. This time, though, the Western Slope was gripped by a deep drought, the summer had been bone dry, and the wind turned on them. Certainly on Sunday as I hiked, this canyon would not have blown up; they could have made all these mistakes and still hooked the fire, no problem. In a sense we were fortunate fighting fire in Southern California, where practically every summer is bone dry and the brush, which even bears oil that increases flammability, is aching to burn. Canyons like this one routinely blow out, and you don’t need weather reports sent in from afar to understand this deadly fact. Officially the “South Canyon Fire,” it indeed was riddled with mistakes – even the name was wrong. It coulda shoulda been attacked sooner, interagency cooperation should have been better, and simple communication about the approaching winds that fanned the fire into a catastrophe no doubt would have saved those lives.But for all the 10 Standard Fire Orders, 18 Watchouts, LCES and other safety prompters made pocket-sized for easy reference on the line, there is one unwritten one that might supercede them all. I knew it well during my career in the late ’70s to mid-’80s: Do not count on backup support or upper management. In the read-and-react environment on the line of a going fire or perhaps more importantly, a dormant one, it’s all on us. We’re the ones who will pay the price of inattention. The harshest lesson of Storm King is that the firefighters would have lived had they followed the basic rules in place then – “safety first,” post lookouts at the key places, have proper safety zones and escape routes, don’t cut line downhill without anchoring the bottom of the fire, watch for changes in weather and fire behavior … . Any of those would have prevented the fatalities, I believe, and I believe this all the more fervently for having hiked the line myself now. My sense of negligence among the leaders on the mountain – with the exception of smokejumper Don Mackey, who died trying to fish out the group on that fireline after sending a handful of smokejumpers to a safety zone and being able to do the same himself – ran deep as I walked the line 10 years later. This should not have happened. The fire service has made strides in the wake of Storm King in cleaning up the bureaucracy, improving communication, upgrading equipment and placing special emphasis on safety. But more rules, more paperwork, more reports – I’m not so sure that’s the way to go. I thought this at the ridgetop between helispots 1 and 2. I could hear the traffic from I-70 as I tried to imagine the roar and smoke and confusion. Part of the value of this classroom for tragedy is the access right off the freeway. It’s a field of nightmares, to be sure, but everyone who fights wildfire should come. Ideally with a stopwatch.Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or firstname.lastname@example.org
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