Storm King ‘icon fire’ for century
Ten years after the Storm King fire, the blaze has become a significant chapter in wildland firefighting history.It’s been the subject of books and movies, and plenty of government reports. It’s also become part of the lore of firefighters, taking its place alongside the 1949 Mann Gulch fire that killed 12 smokejumpers in an eerily similar fire in Montana.But Storm King, or the South Canyon fire, as it’s officially known, is even more important, some say, and has led to many more changes in firefighting.”South Canyon is the granddaddy of American wildfire for the 21st century,” said author John Maclean, who documented the tragedy in his book “Fire on the Mountain,” considered by many the definitive account.”That is the icon fire,” he said. “It’s the biggest thing to happen in almost a century, and everybody kind of recognizes it for that.”It was more important, he said, than Mann Gulch, a blaze his father Norman Maclean, author of “A River Runs Through It,” chronicled in the book “Young Men and Fire.”Many involved with the fire feared the lessons of Storm King would soon be forgotten, but 10 years later, fire officials say, it captivates new crews the way tales of Mann Gulch drew an earlier generation.At the smokejumper base in Missoula, Mont., home of the first parachute jump onto fire and the base for the smokejumpers killed at Mann Gulch, photos from Storm King fill a wall outside the room where parachutes dangle from the ceiling. A scale replica of the monument at Glenwood’s Two Rivers Park sits on the visitor center counter.It has always captivated a wider audience. The fire has inspired numerous TV documentaries, and Maclean’s book has been adapted for a made-for-TV drama on USA Network, although it hasn’t been shot.
“For any of us that were fighting fire in 1994, whether you were a first-year rookie or an old graybeard, July the 6th was an event kind of like when we found out Kennedy was shot back in 1963,” said Dick Mangan, at his small black angus ranch along the Clark Fork River outside Missoula. Retired from the Missoula Technology and Development Center, where fire behavior is studied and gear is developed at the smokejumper base, Mangan is a fire officer, consultant and member of the team that first investigated the Storm Kings fire for the Forest Service.At a wildfire academy in California two years ago, Mangan taught a course on fire line leadership. When one student asked for a lesson on Storm King, 55 students turned out for an afterhours lecture. Most had still been in high school in 1994. “We’re 10 years later,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of us on the way out and a whole bunch of new kids coming in.”Culture clashMaclean calls Storm King the most important blaze since the “Big Blowup” of 1910, when high winds chased flames over more than 3 million acres of the Idaho panhandle and northwest Montana in two days, killing 85, including 78 firefighters, and razing a third of the town of Wallace, Idaho. That prompted the Forest Service to create its first firefighting program and embark on what the agency has since called “a war on all wildfires” that lasted most of a century and has since been blamed for the buildup of brush, dying trees and other flammable fuels that have made recent fires so explosive.The Storm King fire ushered in a new age of wildland firefighting, Maclean said, where firefighters, acting in a complex, interagency network, withdraw from fires when conditions look threatening and where firefighters can challenge orders they consider unsafe.But the firefighters on Storm King were caught in the middle, Maclean said.
“You have the old culture running into the new culture, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what caused the disaster,” he said. “The firefighters were fighting fires by the old rules and everyone else was playing by the new rules.”But they weren’t playing very well, Mackey said. The interagency network was new, and it wasn’t being handled well by fire managers. Available resources, like slurry bombers, that could have knocked down the fire days earlier, sat on the runway unused. One town, two firesMeanwhile, Maclean said, the fire was playing by new rules, too. It was burning through trees and shrubs that had grown up over a century of fire suppression, and was threatening homes that had increasingly grown up next to wild areas.The fire crews were doing what crews had long done, trying to knock down a pesky fire with whatever tools they had.”The old rules can’t be used,” Maclean said. “The old rules can’t apply when you have a modern look at fire as being part of the ecosystem. The old rules shouldn’t be there anymore.”Since then, he said, every important change that’s taken place on the fire lines, from crews refusing orders to fire managers being held accountable for fatal mistakes, can be traced to the Storm King tragedy. “South Canyon added immeasurably to the understanding,” he said. “Sometimes you get the hell away from fire. That’s a lesson from South Canyon that didn’t happen before and it happens now all the time.”To see the change, he looks no farther than Glenwood Springs eight years later, when the Coal Seam fire burned six times larger and burned 29 homes but no one was killed. Wildland firefighters stayed away, while air tankers dropped slurry from above.
“There is a good example,” said Steve Hart, who was incident commander on the Coal Seam fire. “They saw that fire roll out of the canyon and backed off.”A ‘turning point’For Maclean, Storm King ushered in a third chapter in wildfire history, from beginning of the century, when the Forest Service set out to destroy fire, to the middle, when the agency created rules to make firefighters safer, to the end, when agencies set out to make firefighters safer amid devastating wildfires.”Now we’re in the 21st century, and we’re trying to figure this thing out so we cannot kill young people every season in large numbers,” he said. Art Currier is the district ranger on the Lookout Mountain Ranger District of the Ochoco National Forest, home base of the Prineville Hotshots. The Storm King fire was a “turning point,” he said, signaling a time when its OK for firefighters to pull out when they’re not safe, speak up when their concerned, and when managers are more aware of safety concerns and can be held more accountable for their mistakes.”We’re not there yet,” he said. “We’re still making that turn. It’s hard to change a culture.”