The death of a brother on Storm King Mountain 20 years ago changed Jim Roth forever, as it did many of the relatives and fellow firefighters who paid respects to 14 fallen firefighters on the mountainside Sunday morning to mark the 20th anniversary of the tragic fire.
“You look at how many people died here, and then look at the ripple effect for all the family members it impacted,” Roth said, motioning to siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, many of whom were not even born at the time, who took part in the journey up the Storm King 14 Memorial Trail.
Roth is the older brother of Roger Roth, a smokejumper based out of McCall, Idaho, at the time who was among the firefighters who died on July 6, 1994, when a dry cold front’s high winds caused what had been a relatively small fire to explode.
“It definitely changed my life, and my profession,” said Roth, who started Storm King Mountain Technologies in the aftermath of the tragedy with a mission to research and develop better fire safety shelters and other equipment for wildland firefighters.
“We thought this was going to be the last incident like this, but unfortunately we’ve had others,” he said.
Last week, Roth attended the one-year anniversary memorial ceremony in Prescott, Arizona, for the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013.
“I thought it was important to let those families know that they are not alone, and we’re here to help them too,” he said.
A SPECIAL FAMILY HIKE
Roth has made the annual trek up Storm King pretty much every July 6, but Sunday’s 20th anniversary hike was extra-special, because he was joined by his parents, Wally and Carol Roth.
“It was incredibly meaningful for my mom and dad to be here, and to make it all the way up here (to the site of the crosses),” said Roth
Wally Roth, 81, accompanied his son up the Storm King trail to the spot where 12 of the 14 crosses are located, including the one marking the place where Roger, two fellow smokejumpers and nine members of the Prineville, Oregon, Hot Shots met their fate.
A little farther across the ridge and down another drainage sit two more crosses where two Western Slope Helitack crew members died as well.
“It was a little harder than the last time we did it,” Wally said at an afternoon press conference. “It brings back a lot of memories, and it’s good to see old friends that I met 20 years ago. It makes you feel like you’re part of an overgrown family.”
His wife, Carol Roth, 78, opted for the helicopter ride to the ridgetop and back. The helicopter was provided courtesy the Army National Guard High Altitude Training Site out of Eagle.
She said the loss of their younger son 20 years ago left a big hole in their small family.
“It’s something that never goes away,” she said. “Especially as we get to old age, we would like to have all of our kids here to take care of us.”
The Roth family is part of the Oneida tribe of the Iroquois Nation in upper Michigan.
A morning ceremony on the mountain included a Native American prayer and songs by Kenny Frost, Southern Ute spiritual leader, who also gave a blessing at a special commemorative event at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs Sunday evening (see related story).
A TIME TO REMEMBER, LEARN
Andy Tyler, who turns 21 this week, was just a baby when his dad, Grand Junction Helitack crew member Rich Tyler, died on the mountain. He joined aunts and uncles and some of his cousins in the hike up Storm King on Sunday.
“It’s nice to see all the firefighters up here paying homage,” he said. “It means a lot.”
Hiking the trail for the first time since he was 10 years old, Tyler said he has a new perspective on how difficult it was for the firefighters who were battling the blaze before it blew up and overtook them.
“It’s just hard to believe, and hard to imagine what they had to deal with,” he said. “You really don’t get a sense of it until you see it.”
Patty Tyler, Andy’s mom and Rich Tyler’s widow, did not make the trip from Minnesota for the 20th anniversary commemoration.
“Each year, as the anniversary rolls around, we always acknowledge it in some way, especially as it is so close to Andy’s birthday,” she said in an email interview Saturday. “With all the events and hype surrounding it, I feel like I have stepped back in time. It feels like yesterday.”
Jim Tyler, Rich’s brother, said he was proud of the many firefighters, past and present, who came to pay their respects.
“This is just a great community to do this for us,” he said of the effort by several local, state and federal agencies to provide a shuttle and accommodate the families on the mountain, and to organize the public commemoration.
“I’m glad to see that they are using this site for safety training purposes, so firefighters today can learn from it,” he said.
Also on the mountain Sunday were Becky Dunbar and her younger sister Kody. Their brother is Doug Dunbar, one of the Prineville Hot Shots who died on Storm King.
“It’s always kind of sad and bittersweet to come up here,” Becky, who was 17 when her brother, 22 at the time, died. “We always come with lots of family, and it’s always nice to recount the good memories.
“Not a day goes by when we don’t think about my brother, even though it’s been 20 years,” she said.
Eric Hipke, one of the smokejumpers who survived the Storm King fire, was also along for the annual hike Sunday, helping explain to anyone who had questions exactly what happened that dreadful day.
“I like to be here for the family members,” he said. “It helps.”
Hipke is one of the leaders of a yearly “staff ride” on Storm King Mountain, which teaches young BLM and Forest Service wildland firefighters what happened on that particular fire and what safety procedures evolved as a result.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think they would get something out of it,” Hipke said. “Many of them tell me it’s the best training they’ve ever had.”
Lance Honda, who retired in 2009 after several years as a supervisor for the Prineville and Redmond, Oregon, Hot Shots during the years following the Storm King fire, was also there Sunday.
“It’s important to honor those that continued in firefighting after that,” he said. “People need to know what heroes they are. They are truly inspiring.”
Mike Watson, a current member of the Prineville Hot Shots who has been a wildland firefighter since 1998 was helping assist those on the trail along with his fellow hot shot crew members.
“A lot of people have come up and shook my hand and said, ‘Thanks for being here,’” said Watson, who was building trails for the Forest Service when the Storm King fire happened.
“If I had been up there, or if it was my kid, I’d sure appreciate it if someone was up here for me today,” he said.
Michelle Ryerson, now a safety officer with the National Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, was on the mountain that day when 14 of her comrades died.
“The anniversary has been a good opportunity for all of us to meet again,” said Ryerson, who was part of the initial BLM attack squad in 1994 on Storm King.
“For many of the survivors here, they haven’t seen each other since that day,” she said. “It has meant a lot to be here, and to be here for the families.”
Ron Dunton, the BLM’s assistant director for fire and aviation at the National Fire Center, called the fire tragedy on Storm King a “transformational event.”
“Absolutely, it is the goal of the firefighting agencies to never have an occurrence like this again,” he said.