Jim Hawkins knows the deal when it comes to signing up to be a wildland firefighter, and the risks that come with that commitment.
As a crew chief for a “hotshot” team in Arizona in his own youth in the late 1960s, Hawkins recalls that he and his fellow firefighters were never looking for fame.
“I don’t think any firefighter sits around thinking of themselves as heroes,” said Hawkins, who went on to be a member of the Denver Fire Department for many years, and today is a singer-songwriter who owns the Four Mile Bed & Breakfast outside Glenwood Springs with his wife, Sharill, and son Clay Hawkins.
“We also never look to assign blame when something goes wrong,” he said. “We just have a job that needs to be done, and sometimes things happen.”
As they did on July 6, 1994, when strong winds blowing ahead of a cold front whipped a small fire that had been burning for four days on a section of Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs known as Hell’s Gate Ridge into a raging inferno.
The blow-up overtook and claimed the lives of 14 federal wildland firefighters who came to be known as the “Storm King 14,” and whom Hawkins honors with a new video tribute called “Storm King Mountain — When Hell’s Fire Broke Through.”
The video, which includes numerous photos taken at the time of the fire, the crew members who came to fight it, and the aftermath of the tragedy, can be found at www.wildfiretoday.com and has been posted on YouTube, where it now has nearly 1,400 views.
Hawkins happened to be working a brush fire in Denver that same July day when winds from the same weather front blew the fire he was helping to fight into a frenzy.
“The fire blew right over our heads and was getting close to some houses before we were able to get it under control again,” he said of the relatively small fire by comparison that he was working that day.
“I remember thinking that it had been years since I was out on a brush fire, and how different forest fire smoke smells,” Hawkins said.
On their return to the fire station, Hawkins and his fellow firefighters learned about the tragedy on Storm King Mountain out in Glenwood Springs.
“It was one of those things that hit home, and I always felt a connection to Storm King because I had done that kind of work when I was in college,” he said. “We had some fairly close calls, and anyone who’s done that can relate to what happened there.”
Nine hotshots from Prineville, Ore., and members of a smokejumper crew from Missoula, Mont., were among those who lost their lives on Storm King.
The new video tribute includes a reworked song that Hawkins wrote four years ago and which was included on his first CD.
“It was more of a sketch, and I was a little sorry I put it in on the album because I never really finished it at the time,” he said. “With the 20th anniversary of Storm King coming up, it was a chance to finish it and do something special.”
Hawkins lined up several local musicians, including vocalist Sophia Clark, guitarist Mateo Sandate and percussionist Lyn Byars, and worked with song-writing partner Fred Hamilton to re-produce the song.
Many of the photos that accompany the song in the video were obtained from former Glenwood Post photojournalists Casey Cass and David Frey, as well as freelance photographer Chuck Johnson and author John Maclean, who wrote the book “Fire on the Mountain” about the Storm King tragedy.
Maclean is the son of noted author Norman Maclean, who wrote “Young Men and Fire” about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in Montana, with which numerous comparisons to Storm King were made.
Additional contributions for Hawkins’ video production came from smokejumper and photographer Mike McMillan.
“So often, stories get told with too many details, and sometimes you just have to boil it down to the emotion of it,” Hawkins said. “This is a story that needs to be remembered.”
The Glenwood Springs community pledged 20 years ago that it “would never forget,” which became the impetus for erecting a memorial to the Storm King 14 in Two Rivers Park, and the memorial trail up Storm King Mountain where 14 white crosses mark the location where each of the firefighters died that tragic day.
Several local, state and federal fire agencies are planning a special commemoration on July 6 in Two Rivers Park. For details, visit www.southcanyonfire.com