GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Ralph Holtby never expected the outpouring of support and comfort offered by the residents of a town far away from his family’s Oregon home when they lost a daughter in the wildfire on Storm King Mountain back on July 6, 1994.
“The kindness, generosity and compassion from this community was a mighty rare thing,” Holtby, one of the speakers at a commemorative ceremony in Two Rivers Park Sunday evening to mark the 20th anniversary, said of the tragedy that killed 14 wildland firefighters, including Bonnie Jean Holtby.
Support from a community that shared in the grief and rallied behind the families of the fallen firefighters was the beginning of the healing process, Holtby said.
“This is a beautiful, courageous town,” he said.
Indeed, Glenwood Springs, through the members of the Storm King 14 Committee, each of whom adopted one of the families, lived up to its promise 20 years ago that it would never forget the 14 men and women who became forever known as the “Storm King 14.”
Big wildfires were always something that “happened somewhere else,” or that people usually just heard about on the evening news, at least until the summer of 1994, said Stephen Bershenyi, a Glenwood Springs native and current city councilman.
“We open our hearts to all of those who put themselves between our town and a most ferocious fire,” Bershenyi said. “We as a community suffered with you and your heartbreaking loss.”
Hundreds of Glenwood Springs residents joined the more than 200 relatives, friends and fellow firefighters at the 20th anniversary commemoration.
A fire engine procession, representing the many wildland firefighting agencies that were present 20 years ago and the local fire departments that provided support, wound its way from West Glenwood to Two Rivers Park.
A drum and bagpipes corps joined the Honor Guard in presenting the colors, playing “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”
As Holtby spoke, 14 purple streamers were dropped from an airplane to honor each of the 14 fallen firefighters.
Two blessings were given, one by longtime local pastor Doug Self and another by Kenny Frost, a Southern Ute Indian spiritual leader.
“This community will always remember the sacrifice made by those who lost their lives on the mountain that day,” Self offered.
They may be gone in body, but remain in spirit, Frost assured the family members gathered for the ceremony.
“Know that, from time to time, they will look down upon you and say, ‘You are not forgotten, either,’” Frost said.
Also speaking were Todd Richardson, lead Bureau of Land Management fire management officer for Colorado; and Daniel Jiron, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service who was part of the team that led the investigation of what officially became known as the South Canyon Fire.
Both said they have dedicated their careers since that incident to improving safety when it comes to fighting wildland fires.
“For me, it changed the arc of what I would do for the rest of by career,” said Jiron.
What was an occupation for him became a “vocation,” he said, “so that I could dedicate my life to doing this work … and understand the responsibility we have.
“Yet, there is a lot of work ahead for us to do,” he said.
Richardson concurred, saying the South Canyon Fire “forever transformed how I look at my responsibility for fire management.”
Through staff ride trainings at fire incident locations like Storm King Mountain, firefighters “both young and seasoned” learn to become future leaders on the fire lines, he said.
“Today, families and friends, local and distant communities, choose to gather to honor the Storm King 14,” he said. “I can assure you that these young people today will never forget, because us old people will not let them forget.”
As the names of each of the “Storm King 14” were read to conclude the ceremony Sunday, a light rain blew in from the north and a rainbow appeared along the eastern ridge above Glenwood Springs.