A grateful community vowed 20 years ago never to forget the 14 men and women from afar who sacrificed their lives on Storm King Mountain to save homes and lives in Glenwood Springs.
“We will never forget” was a pledge made by the city’s leaders at the time to the families of the fallen wildland firefighters and the small communities across the country from which they came to battle a blaze that would live in infamy and be recalled each July 6.
“You can imagine when you have a fire on the ridge overlooking our town, the fear, concern and dread we felt,” Bob Zanella, Glenwood Springs’ mayor at the time, remarked at a July 9, 1994, community memorial service in Prineville, Oregon, where nine of the 14, part of the elite Hot Shots firefighting team, were based.
“These 14 people have become a part of our community, and they will not be forgotten,” said Zanella, who devoted much of the following year serving on the Storm King 14 Memorial Committee, which worked to erect a monument in Glenwood Springs and build a memorial trail up the mountainside.
Today, Zanella is still living up to that pledge, sitting on the South Canyon Fire Commemorative Committee that is planning several private and public events for the 20th anniversary this weekend, when about 300 relatives of the firefighters are expected to be in town.
“When City Council decided to form a memorial committee following the tragedy, the idea was to carry through on our promise that we will never forget,” Zanella said recently. “As I said then, these young men and women became a part of our community, and they still are.”
RECALLING THAT DAY
Zanella remembers well where he was that day, when a relatively small fire was fanned by winds into an inferno that overtook 14 of the more than 50 firefighters who were on the mountain. Besides the 14 deaths, several firefighters were injured as they scrambled up the mountainside to escape the flames.
“I was at home cutting the lawn when my wife got a call that some of the firefighters had been killed,” he recalled. “It was hard for all of us to put our heads around what was happening, and we didn’t know if it was some of our own local firefighters or ones from outside the area.
“As we learned who it was, I remember it just hit me that these were mostly kids, really, many of them home from college and working summer jobs fighting fires,” Zanella said. “We didn’t know them, but we felt responsible.”
Current Glenwood Springs Fire Chief Gary Tillotson was in his second year with the Glenwood Fire Department when the Storm King fire, officially named the South Canyon Fire by the interagency fire command team, happened.
“We knew it was a lightning strike a few days earlier that caused it, and we went out and verified that it was on BLM land,” Tillotson said. “It was difficult access, and the BLM said, ‘Yeah, just monitor it.’
“From my perspective, it wasn’t something we were too concerned about,” he said of the fire, which was burning on a high ridge above Interstate 70 at the time.
“We didn’t see that one coming,” Tillotson said of the blowup just a couple of days later. “When that happened, not only Glenwood Fire but a number of surrounding fire agencies came in and helped with structure protection up along Mitchell Creek and in Canyon Creek Estates.”
Just as fast as the fire blew out of control, when nightfall came, he said, the fire laid down and never did pose the same threat to homes in and around Glenwood Springs that it did during the initial flare-up.
But the damage in terms of human loss was far greater than anyone could imagine.
“We were all in shock that these young lives had been taken to protect us,” said Glenwood Springs resident Alex Yajko, who also served on the original memorial committee and is part of the commemorative planning group as well.
“What was really remarkable was that the community came together in a most amazing way, as many communities do in times of tragedy,” she said. “There was a purpose and a togetherness to care for the firefighters who were still here fighting the fire after the incident.”
For three straight days she remembers helping to deliver food provided by local supermarkets and restaurants and feeding some 700 people at the incident command center that had been set up at Glenwood Springs Middle School in West Glenwood.
“We organized and cooked breakfast and made lunches and brought them clean towels,” Yajko said. “And I remember one of our Rotarians brought in some of those big early cell phones, which was cutting-edge technology at the time, so that the firefighters could stay in touch with their families.”
Around town, purple ribbons became the community’s tribute to the fallen firefighters, and remain today as a symbol of respect and remembrance of that day 20 years ago.
Jeff Feaster, who worked part-time at the Glenwood Post newspaper, came up with the idea the day after the tragedy, gathering up as many purple ribbons as he could find to tie to light posts and other public places.
“It’s to show their families and the other firefighters out there that this community is behind them,” Feaster said at the time, explaining that purple signifies courage and honor, similar to the Purple Heart that is given to wounded soldiers.
By the end of the week, nearly everyone in Glenwood Springs was wearing a purple ribbon on their lapels.
“I think it allowed us to grieve and move forward, otherwise we would just be overwhelmed by it all,” Yajko said of the community’s outpouring of support for the firefighters and their families.
Afterward, the pledge “to never forget” continued with the committee’s work to build a lasting memorial to the fallen firefighters by selecting a sculpture to erect in Two Rivers Park and building the trail up to the place where 14 granite crosses mark the site where each of the 14 died.
“That was also important in the healing,” she said.
Each of the original Storm King 14 committee members also adopted one of the 14 families to make sure they had a voice in the process of establishing a lasting memorial.
Zanella adopted the family of Douglas Dunbar, one of the nine Prineville Hot Shots, and Yajko adopted the family of Richard Tyler, a member of the Grand Junction Helitack team who was killed. Those bonds remain as strong today as they were 20 years ago, they said.
“We became friends and have stayed in touch all these years,” Zanella said of Sandy Dunbar, mother of Doug, who has returned to Glenwood Springs for most of the last 20 years to make the pilgrimage up Storm King Mountain.
Dunbar plans to be here this year as well, he said.
“Friendships happen out of many different things, good and bad,” Zanella said. “It just helps everybody through something like this by having that connection.”
Commented then Prineville Mayor Todd Vallie at the 1994 memorial service in his town, “What many of us were not prepared for was the outpouring of love and compassion from people who were not part of our community.”