The hike up Storm King Mountain from Canyon Creek is difficult even with a now-well-beaten trail up the first mile or so to an overlook, and beyond, up another steep ridge, to the site where 14 wildland firefighters died on July 6, 1994.
Imagine scaling the mountain 20 years ago when thick Gambel oak and pinyon-juniper pine stood 15 to 20 feet tall on steep, rocky slopes with no obvious trail, all while lugging a 60-pound pack, chainsaws and other firefighting equipment.
Then imagine working a fire line with your fellow crew members in that same thick vegetation on that same steep hillside, unaware that a fire had spotted from below and, fanned by 45-mph wind gusts, was racing uphill toward you and your crewmates at speeds of up to 35 feet per second.
A radio alert came from those watching from the ridge above, but by then it was too late for some and nearly too late for others who just barely escaped.
It’s all part of the experience the builders of the Storm King Memorial Trail wanted to replicate for hikers as they make their way past interpretive signs that tell the story of the Storm King 14 and explain what happened that particular day.
Today, the trail has become a regular pilgrimage for family and friends of the fallen, other wildland firefighters who were on the mountain that day, firefighters from all over the country who share a common bond, and those just curious to see and experience, and to pay tribute.
“Two words,” said George Dana of Glenwood Springs. “Admiration and respect.”
Dana, a former wildland firefighter himself, was one of a handful of people making their way up the trail Thursday morning, three days before some 200 family members are expected to make the trek on the anniversary itself.
Dana had come to know Rich Tyler, one of the members of the Grand Junction Helitack team who died on the fire, and also several of the surviving firefighters.
“I’m looking forward to seeing friends who will be here,” he said. “Some are still fighting fires to this day.
“I just remember how fast it went, and how we knew something had gone bad,” Dana, who was watching the blowup on Storm King from town that afternoon, recalled.
He knew firsthand how quickly things could change, having fought numerous fires with Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service crews, working out of the Red Feather Lake region northwest of Fort Collins in the late 1970s and early ’80s
“We came over and put out a similar fire in that very same canyon back in 1980,” Dana recalled.
At the overlook, Glenwood resident Jim Phillips found himself overcome with the same emotions he experienced the previous three times he hiked the trail since it was dedicated on the first anniversary of the fire tragedy.
“I always just feel for those families and their friends, and the kids they left behind,” Phillips said. “We all experienced a devastating loss that day.”
Hiking the trail for the first time Thursday was Bob Burrell, a 39-year member of the Golden Fire Department, and his friend Donna Devine from Arvada.
“With the 20th anniversary, and having been a wildland firefighter myself for many years, I just wanted to see where it all happened and get my own perspective,” said Burrell, who was wearing a special-edition “We Will Never Forget” T-shirt that was made and sold 20 years ago to help raise money for the victims’ relief fund.
Burrell said he’s been in similar situations fighting fires himself, but never had to deploy his protective fire shelter as those on Storm King Mountain did that fateful day in 1994, some successfully, others not.
Devine said she was “deeply moved” as she read the interpretive story of how that summer was one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, and about what happened that afternoon when a dry cold front blew in, turning a 200-acre fire into a 2,100-acre inferno in a matter of just a few hours.
“It’s very beautiful up here, but also very emotional to know what happened,” she said. “As I was walking up the path I tried to imagine being one of the firefighters. I was also surprised that there were so many women who were among those fighting the fires back then.”
Four of the firefighters killed that day were women: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Terri Hagen and Bonnie Holtby, all members of the elite Prineville, Oregon, Hot Shots crew.
“It’s also more emotional being here with a firefighter, and knowing his experiences,” Devine said of her friend Burrell. “You also come to understand that this is what they are trained for, and that they love it.”
The Storm King Memorial Trail was constructed mostly by volunteers during the year after the tragic fire, with oversight from the BLM and Forest Service.
The trail to the overlook covers about a mile and climbs 700 vertical feet above the Colorado River Valley and Interstate 70. A steep drop into a drainage between the two ridges is followed by another 450 vertical feet for another mile up to the top of the ridge. From there, another trail leads to the respective sites of 14 granite crosses that mark where each of the firefighters died.
Mementos such as T-shirts from firefighting agencies can be found tied to some of the old burned trees on the ridge top, and personal remembrances have been left by family and friends at each of the cross sites.
During the morning of July 6, the Storm King trailhead parking lot will be closed and access past Canyon Creek limited to accommodate the families and to allow them privacy.
The public is invited to join families and firefighters from across the country for a commemorative event, including an honor guard presentation and special speakers, starting at 5 p.m. Sunday at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs.
The event begins with a fire engine procession from West Glenwood arriving at the park at 4:45 p.m. Those attending the event are asked to park in downtown Glenwood Springs and walk to Two Rivers Park.
“I always just feel for those families and their friends, and the kids they left behind. We all experienced a devastating loss that day.”
Glenwood Springs resident