Forest service still learning from Storm King | VailDaily.com

Forest service still learning from Storm King

Dennis Webb

The nation’s third-highest ranking U.S. Forest Service official says much has been done to heed the safety message that followed the deaths of 14 firefighters near Glenwood Springs in 1994.”It’s been 10 years, there’s been a lot of changes, a lot of things we’ve been able to work on,” said Tom Thompson, the agency’s deputy chief.Thompson came to Glenwood Springs to join in last week’s Storm King remembrance ceremonies. He gave an interview in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs after a 10th anniversary commemoration there for those who died on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.The firefighters were killed when a small-acreage fire blew up, driven by high winds, trapping them on the steep mountain’s slopes. After the accident, investigative reports said poor communications, failure to follow safety guidelines, mismanagement and a host of other factors contributed to the deaths. The lessons of Storm King continue to be studied by the firefighting community.”You can’t assume that people know,” said Thompson. “I think that’s the key thing we’ve changed, is that we don’t take things for granted.”Thompson said he has been active on firefighting investigative teams during the past four or five years. He is a Colorado native and former deputy forest chief for the Rocky Mountain Region.Thompson has climbed the Storm King trail to the site of the deaths five times, including on Tuesday’s anniversary. While he hiked alone, he said he stopped often to talk to victims’ families and others on the trail.”It was great to see the families,” he said.Thompson wasn’t invited by organizers to speak at a remembrance ceremony last Tuesday night.”I would have been honored to do it but they were trying to keep it short and I can respect and support that,” he said.One of Tuesday’s speakers has proven to be an ally to the Forest Service in its efforts to clear away excess forest growth that has contributed to large and sometimes destructive and deadly wildfires. U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, a Grand Junction Republican and Glenwood native, wrote the Healthy Forest Initiative legislation aimed at streamlining regulations regarding logging and other fuel reduction programs.Thompson said he appreciated the support from McInnis and from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for that bill. “It’s given us capability to do things that need to be done,” he said.The ongoing drought makes that work all the more important, he said. But he added that the fuel reduction projects that lie ahead of the agency could take 15 to 20 years to accomplish, not just one or two.Likewise, he said, the lessons from Storm King will continue to be learned for years to come. And it still can be hard to come to terms fully with such a tragedy.”There’s so many questions we have that don’t have answers,” he said.But for Thompson, there’s no questioning the dedication and hard-working ways of firefighters. He praised their “spirit of passion” for helping others.”I have nothing but pride in what they do and how they do it,” he said.