Tragedy has bound families of the fallen
Nearly 10 years after Prineville, Ore., Hotshot Doug Dunbar died, his mother, Sandy, carried out his last wish.On Independence Day 1994, two days before Dunbar and the Prineville Hotshots arrived on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs, they were fighting fires and dodging mosquitoes in Oregon. Sandy worked for a bug spray company. Doug asked for enough to coat his 20-person crew.Ten years later, she delivered. Dressed in their identifying blue T-shirts, this summer’s crew of Prineville Hotshots gathered with her in a circle as she presented them with a box of it. A decade earlier it would have been a mundane box in the mail. Now it was a tearful ceremony, and a link between the current crew and one nearly cut in half when nine of them were among the 14 firefighters to die on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.”You guys are kind of like getting Doug’s last request,” Sandy said last month as she gathered the Hotshots around her, wiping away tears as some of the hotshots did the same.”You guys stay really safe this summer, OK?” she said, standing in Ochoco Creek Park in Prineville, not far from the Wildland Firefighters Monument, built in their honor.”It meant a lot to us,” one hotshot told her afterward.”It meant a lot to me, too,” she said.
Portion of lives frozenA decade later, the hotshots are a new crew. Only one, Alex Robertson, now second in command, was in the 1994 group.For the parents of the fallen firefighters, times change, too. More than just tears, the past 10 years have brought new sons- and daughters-in-law and new grandchildren. Some have moved. Some have retired. Yet a portion of their lives seems frozen. Many have become bound to one another by a common tragedy. Some gather each summer for the annual Prineville Hotshot Memorial Run, a fund-raiser to maintain the monument the families created. Some of the mothers gather each winter for annual trips. It’s made friends of people who might otherwise be just passing acquaintances.”I wish I didn’t know any of these people,” said Ken Brinkley, father of Levi Brinkley, surrounded by other parents of fallen hotshots. In this annual gathering of friends, no one disagreed.Most parents of the 14 fallen firefighters planned to be in Glenwood Springs for the 10th anniversary of the Storm King fire.”It’s like I said 10 years ago,” Brinkley said. “I feel better when I’m in Glenwood Springs than anyplace else, as far as people caring.””Glenwood Springs supported us and we are part of them,” said Ken Johnson, whose son Rob died on the fire, while another son, Tony, survived. His arm bears a tattoo of a purple ribbon, the emblem Glenwood chose to honor the firefighters, with four hearts for each of his sons, one in Prineville blue.
Glenwood’s ceremony is part of a commitment residents made after the fire to never forget the firefighters who died battling a fire that threatened the town. That pledge also extends from the family members to the town, said Marv Kelso, father of fallen hotshot Jon Kelso.”That works both ways,” he said. “We can’t forget them.”Sometimes, they say, the pain is closer than others. Seeing a picture of Colorado wildflowers in an Oregon doctor’s office brought tears to Anita Kelso’s eyes, she said. Sometimes, she said, she dreams Jon walks through the door. “Those are the kind of things that make me believe they’re with us,” Brinkley said. “Sometimes I wish they’d get a little closer and nudge us.”Some say they feel closest to their children at the Prineville memorial, where a path winds amid aspens, past boulders that bear photos and biographies of their children identical to the plaques at Glenwood’s monument in Two Rivers Park. It ends at a bronze statue made by Marble sculptor David Nelson depicting three firefighters in a snag.”I make myself believe that they are here,” Brinkley said.’Their spirit is there’Others feel closest to them on the mountain where their children died. Bob and Nadine Mackey have visited Storm King every year but last, when health problems prevented them. The parents of Missoula smokejumper Don Mackey, the jumper-in-charge at Storm King, they have visited the mountain multiple times some years, camping on the ridge where several survivors escaped to safety.
The Mackeys arranged for and placed the granite crosses at the site where each firefighter died. “Their spirit is there,” said Don’s sister Susan, one of three younger sisters.Don was famously close to his family. His daughter, Leslianne, turned 6 the day after the blowup that killed her father because, according to accounts, he left his safety zone to check on his crew. This year, she’ll be old enough to drive. His son, Robert, named for Don’s father, is 14.The Mackeys live on 39 acres outside Hamilton, Mont., where the tall, rounded peaks of the Bitterroots tumble into rugged Blodgett Canyon. Wearing a Missoula Smokejumper cap and belt buckle, Bob Mackey gestured to a rise on a saddle overlooking the canyon named Don Mackey Point. He had carried a plaque there to honor his son. In the canyon below, Don’s friends and a group of volunteers hauled a 4 1/2-foot-tall monument in his memory.Don’s room is a tribute to him, covered with certificates he received as a smokejumper, and after his death. “He had a sense of duty, honor and compassion,” reads a speech Montana Sen. Max Baucus delivered on the Senate floor six days after the fire. “He had the qualities that make an ordinary man or woman a hero.”Invention inspired
For Jim Roth, his brother’s death led to a drive to make firefighting safer. Over the past decade, the aerospace engineer has dedicated himself to improving the foil fire shelters used by firefighters as a last-ditch effort to save themselves when fires rage out of control.”It was a direct result of the fact that my brother Roger Roth was one of the few firefighters that was actually able to get into his fire shelter, and unfortunately, it did not save his life,” Roth said.Roth hopes his design will mean a chance at life for others. He founded Storm King Mountain Technologies in Camarillo, Calif., to design a new generation of fire shelters, the foil tents that deflect heat in burnovers. Roth’s shelter is designed to withstand hotter flames than the shelter used for years, and to open up faster. It made the final round of four designs government officials chose as they prepared to release a new shelter this year. The final choice, though, was manufactured by another company based on a design by the Missoula Technology and Development Center at the smokejumper base there.Roth’s design is slightly bulkier, heavier and more expensive, he admits, but he believes it’s safer, too. If it doesn’t become standard issue, he says, he hopes it will become the choice for some firefighters who want an alternative.His company has also developed a fire-resistant curtain to protect trucks and bulldozers from burnovers, and it’s working with another company to produce lightweight defibrillators for handling heart attacks in the field, a frequent cause of death.The effort has cost him his savings and his marriage, Roth said, but he says it’s worth it to keep firefighters safe.”My brother, Roger, used to say, ‘I work with some of the best people in the world,’ and it’s true,” he said. “When I’m fortunate enough to go out on the fire line, I’m just so impressed with these people. Those are the heroes.”