GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Standing on the very mountain where 14 of their fellow wildland firefighters died nearly 20 years ago, four firefighters who survived the deadly South Canyon Fire helped others Tuesday understand and learn from what happened.
Three members of the 1994 Prineville (Ore.) Hot Shots crew, Bryan Scholz, Alex Robertson and Kip Gray, were on hand as part of a training session to discuss the events surrounding the July 1994 fire on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs. Joining the group was Eric Hipke, one of the smoke jumpers from Idaho who also was among the survivors.
They met with some of the 85 wildland firefighters from across the country who have been in Glenwood Springs this week for training.
The four were among the 35 firefighters who survived the fire, which killed 14 firefighters on July 6, 1994, including nine members from the Prineville Hot Shots, three smoke jumpers and two helitack crew members.
Though they declined an interview about their visit, David Boyd, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management area office, who participated in the Tuesday “staff ride” training, shared a little bit about the experience.
“Having four firefighters here who were actually on the South Canyon Fire for one of these trainings was really powerful,” he said. “It’s not about trying to second guess what people did before, but to put yourself in that role and, based on what we know now, what would you do and how would that be different?”
A staff ride is intended to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a past incident in order for them to learn and be prepared for future incidents, Boyd said.
“A lot of the firefighters who participated this week are still early in their careers, but are in leadership positions where they will be expected to make those decisions,” he said. “The idea is to pass down what people have learned to the young firefighters who are coming up.”
According to a special website that has been established commemorating the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire — www.southcanyonfire.com — staff rides were developed by the military and are now commonly used in wildland firefighter training.
“We’ve been doing these here for probably 10 years or more,” Boyd said. “After South Canyon, the way we approach wildland firefighting really changed. The idea is to invite people who have been in these fire situations before to talk about the changes that resulted. This fire was very important in that.”
Staff rides are held on location across the West in places where deadly fires occurred dating back to the early and mid-20th century.
One other local fire area that is included in the trainings is the July 1976 Battlement Creek Fire south of Parachute, which claimed the lives of three firefighters and an air tanker pilot whose plane crashed during the incident.
According to the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program’s staff ride description of the South Canyon Fire, the incident led to higher training standards, including an increased emphasis on weather information, fire danger recognition and interagency communications.
The lightning-caused South Canyon Fire had been smoldering on a ridge top for several days, but blew up into a raging inferno that overtook the firefighters when a dry cold front brought high winds to the area.
Following the tragedy, the Glenwood Springs community raised money to place a memorial statue honoring the fallen firefighters in Two Rivers Park. The Storm King Memorial Trail was also established, taking hikers up the rugged mountain to the point where 14 white crosses mark the spot where each of the firefighters died.
The trail serves as a regular pilgrimage for firefighters from across the country, as well as relatives and acquaintances of the fallen, and those who want to learn about what happened.
“This community said 20 years ago that we would never forget, and these staff rides are part of that, and making sure the fire community doesn’t ever forget,” Boyd said.
A commemorative event marking the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire and honoring the fallen firefighters is being planned for the evening of Sunday, July 6, in Two Rivers Park.