Only half a dozen families at Canyon Creek Estates lived there when a small plume of smoke appeared on the flank of Storm King Mountain after a lightning storm on July 2, 1994, but the memory of the subsequent disaster remains strong in the small subdivision west of Glenwood Springs.
Residents had a front-row seat as crews arrived to fight the fire, and watched in horror when the South Canyon Fire blew up on the afternoon of July 6 and 14 men and women died.
“We met some of those firefighters,” Lois Foraker recalled. “We saw them. We watched them go up there. We watched what happened on that mountain.”
The Forakers first saw the smoke as they returned home from celebrating July 4 in Grand Junction. That night, they could see glowing embers on the hillside just a few miles away.
“We celebrate the night of the 4th looking at a mountain on fire,” Bev Johnson wrote that night in a letter.
Her husband, Chuck, called 911, but was told that other flare-ups across the state were taking priority.
“One or two helicopter drops would have put the fire out,” Chuck Johnson observed, “but they didn’t come because they had more pressing needs. So the fire just gradually worked its way downward.”
WORRY ABOUT THE WINDS
The Johnsons called again as the fire spread the next day, and watched through binoculars as the first crews mounted the hill.
By the morning of July 6, Bev wrote that the open space at the center of the subdivision had become a staging area for firefighting efforts.
Chuck Johnson, a former Navy weather man, worried as he snapped photos of hot shots unloading from their bus.
“I told my wife I was really concerned about what was going to be happening with the afternoon winds,” Chuck recalled.
“It was his extreme concern that somebody was going to die,” added Bev.
When the fire blew up in the afternoon, the Johnsons were coming back from Redstone and saw the smoke.
Lois Foraker, who was baby-sitting a handful of children along with her own 2-year-old and 5-year-old, described it as a mushroom cloud.
“It was like an atomic bomb went off — the same kind of plume and everything,” Chuck Johnson agreed.
Richard Drew was on his way to work, but turned back immediately. By the time he and the Johnsons arrived, surviving firefighters were beginning to appear at the staging area.
The neighborhood opened their homes to firefighters so they could use restrooms and make phone calls to their relatives.
Firefighters and residents watched the hillside together.
“We could see that some of them had deployed their protective gear,” said Chuck Johnson. “It was crushing.”
In the wake of the disaster, more personnel arrived on scene well before supplies to support them did, so Canyon Creek residents began to feed the firefighters.
“Everybody up here in the development started hitting the freezer,” Drew recalled.
Meanwhile, news of the tragedy went out around the world. Canyon Creek residents Christine and Steve Nilsson saw it in a newspaper while on vacation in Greece.
The fire burned for several more days. The families of some of the deceased arrived, and although they could do nothing to turn back the clock, residents did their best to provide comfort and support. Chuck Johnson gave them copies of his photographs depicting the crews as they arrived.
“It affected all of us,” Drew said.
For many years, the Johnsons could see the crosses on the hill from their backyard. Now, though trees block the view, it doesn’t take much to remind them.
“To hear that helicopter sound still gives me goose bumps to this day,” Chuck admitted. “It takes you back to 20 years ago.”
“Anytime we see or smell smoke, our instincts are to get up and see what’s going on,” Lois Foraker added. “It still makes me tearful to think about it.”
Foraker suspects many newcomers don’t know much about the fire.
“If they live in Glenwood, they’ve probably heard about it but probably don’t realize the effect it had on people here,” she said.
A memorial was constructed by Canyon Creek residents at a curve in the road just below the homes. There, irises grow in orderly confusion around a field of 14 boulders, which bear plaques honoring the men and women who died just over the hill.
“Standing there at the memorial, you can actually look up and see where the fire topped out,” Chuck Johnson observed.
The community hosted a private 10th anniversary event, which brought the site to the attention of the firefighter’s families.
Canyon Creek isn’t putting anything on this year, but Drew hopes the 20th anniversary will serve as a reminder for those who didn’t live it. The continued threat of fire to the rural subdivision helps drive the message home, as well.
“It’s burned on three sides of us,” he said. “The only section that really hasn’t caught on fire yet is on the north side of us. It’s been an interesting 20 years.”