Storm King survivor revisits mountain
As the sun set on Storm King Mountain on a recent June evening, Eric Hipke recounted a story of survival.Hipke, who escaped from the Storm King fire just west and north of Glenwood Springs in 1994, led a hike of more than 30 firefighters and students from the Colorado Wildfire Academy up the Storm King Mountain Memorial trail.Standing at the observation point of the trail, Hipke emphasized the lack of communication and mishandling of the events leading up the deaths of 14 firefighters. “Everybody screwed up, from the management right down to us on the fire,” he said. “We could have put people on this earlier, but communications were tough and we were behind the curve.”Lightning started the Storm King fire on July 2, 1994, a year of drought and low humidity. The fire wasn’t reported until July 3, and not until July 5 did a Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service crew begin tackling the blaze. Hipke, a smokejumper, landed on a ridge near Storm King Mountain with his team on July 6. Another smokejumper crew was already on the scene, and 10 members of the Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew joined the effort later that afternoon. By that time, the fire had exploded to 50 acres from less than 10 the previous day.
As Hipke and his colleagues began to make a fire line to secure the fire, the brush they were working reached heights of 12 feet, obscuring their view.”I remember (James) Thrash saying, ‘This is not a good idea. We shouldn’t be here,'” Hipke said, sweeping his arm across the mountainside still dotted with charred oak trees. Thrash, a smokejumper, perished in the fire.But the group continued into the afternoon, sticking to their original plan of digging a fireline. By 3 p.m., Hipke said, clouds had begun to form on the horizon, the beginnings of the cold front that ultimately pushed the fire up the mountain and trapped the men and women.”We just lulled into it,” Hipke said of the work that day. “The fire was certainly no more than a foot flame length. That was our huge mistake — we didn’t plan for the worst-case scenario.” Escape route
The cold front quickly advanced, and by 4 p.m. 100-foot flames, aided by 45-mph winds burst up the drainage basin through highly flammable oak trees.”We couldn’t see – all we saw was smoke. There wasn’t even a discussion – we immediately starting walking up that way,” he said, pointing to the trail going up Storm King Mountain.Every once in a while Hipke said he could see big walls of flames below him, but the group kept moving at a slow pace. “I looked behind me and noticed Mackey had caught up with us,” Hipke said, referring to Don Mackey, the Missoula smokejumpers crew boss who died in the fire. “He looked at me and I looked at him. He had a grimace; he looked concerned.”In the final 400 feet to the top of the ridge, Hipke said, Thrash and the rest of the group stopped to catch their breath and consider making a shelter. “I had one thing in my mind and it was to get out,” Hipke said, and so he continued up past the group, the air becoming oppressively hot. The smoke blocked the sun, enveloping him in an eerie dark red, and strong winds blew cinders all around him. Thirty feet from the top, a strong gust of wind slammed Hipke to the ground, but he was able to recover and make it the rest of the way to the top.”I remember that feeling, to not be fighting gravity anymore and the heat,” Hipke said. “Somewhere along there I saw my hands – the skin was falling off them.”
Hipke traveled down the east drainage to safety, one of 35 firefighters who survived by either escaping down the east side or deploying their fire shelters. In all, 14 people died in the fire.Human natureSince that day almost 10 years ago, various agencies have determined that both inadequate safety zones and lack of communication, especially regarding the cold front, contributed to the tragic outcome.The audience, rapt as Hipke spoke, seemed moved by the experience.”Part of the reason we’re up here for the academy is to recognize firefighters that gave their lives doing our jobs,” said Judith Howard of the Golden Gate Canyon Fire Department.
Several people came to pay homage to fallen firefighters they had known or felt a connection to.Don Dagnan, a firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service in the Alleghany National Forest, said the hike reinforced his memory of personal friend Rob Browning, a helitack crew member who died in the Storm King fire. Another helitack crew member lost in the fire, Richard Tyler, lived in Janice Gardener’s town of Palisade.”I came for all the firefighters, but for him especially,” said Gardener, a volunteer for the Baca Grande Volunteer Fire Department in Crestone. After Hipke finished his talk, academy students were free to ask questions. Tyler Bell, a firefighter for Wasatch Fire Suppression in Ogden, Utah, broke the silence. “Is there anything you wished you would have done differently?” he asked. Hipke paused for a few moments, a slight wind picking up his blond hair. “We should’ve have said, ‘Nope, we’re not going down there,'” he said, glancing at Storm King. “But it’s human nature. Nobody wants to be standing around when there’s work to do.”
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