Son of Storm King firefighter reflects on 20th anniversary
July 3, 2014
A look back in time: Late June, 1994
In the days leading up to the tragic South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in early July 1994, the warning signs were there that this wasn’t a typical fire season.
Perhaps it was only fitting that one of the featured attractions at the 87th annual Strawberry Days festival in Glenwood Springs just weeks before the tragedy was a Smokey Bear hot-air balloon.
The iconic image of forest fire prevention floated above Glenwood as, already, numerous wildfires had broken out across the West before the official start of summer, including several on the Western Slope and here in Garfield County.
A 700-acre fire near Silt in mid-June burned a mobile home and log cabin, while another fire twice that size was called the “worst yet” and resulted in numerous evacuations of homes in the area.
Colorado had set a heat record for June, with temperatures pushing into triple digits as the summer fire season was shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory.
On June 29, then-Gov. Roy Romer issued a statewide ban on open fires due to the increasing dry condition.
Romer’s comment at the time was ominous: “We’re going to have a lot of natural fires, so we cannot afford man-made ones.”
That same day, the Western Slope Regional Fire Center recorded nearly 600 dry lightning strikes before 1 p.m. and little or no precipitation.
Following a helicopter tour of the fires burning across the Western Slope, Romer commented, “While we were out, three or four new fires started right under us.”
When Tulane University student Andy Tyler began looking at internship possibilities for the summer before his senior year, it seemed only natural that he would end up in western Colorado, where he was born 21 years ago.
"For a number of reasons it just made sense," said Tyler, who is studying public health and political science and is now completing his internship at the Mesa County Health Department in Grand Junction.
"I already knew a lot of people out here, including some I hadn't seen in a long time … and, of course, with the 20th anniversary coming up," Tyler said of the July 6 anniversary of the tragedy on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs, where a wildfire in 1994 took the life of 14 wildland firefighters, including his father, Richard Tyler.
Andy Tyler recently became the first child of one of the fallen firefighters to receive the Storm King 14 Memorial Scholarship, which he will use to help complete his studies next school year at Tulane in New Orleans.
“In middle school, I read ‘Fire on the Mountain’ by John Maclean. It’s a fantastic account of what happened [at Storm King], and I learned what a true tragedy it was and how a lot of things went wrong and how it just evolved into a giant mess.”
The scholarship fund was established in 1996 through local donations left after money was raised for the Storm King 14 Monument in Two Rivers Park that stands in tribute to the fallen.
The fund was dedicated as a living memorial to those who lost their lives, and is managed by the Colorado Mountain College Foundation.
According to Carol Efting, scholarships coordinator for CMC, 26 Storm King scholarships have been awarded since its inception, starting in 1998 when Anna Johnson and Becky Dunbar received scholarships to attend Central Oregon Community College and Western Baptist College in Oregon, respectively.
Johnson and Dunbar are sisters of Rob Johnson and Douglas Dunbar, two members of the Oregon-based Prineville Hotshots who were among those killed on Storm King Mountain.
The sisters of two other members of the Prineville Hotshots, Rachel Kelso and Rachel Brinkley, were more recent recipients of the scholarship in 2008.
The Storm King 14 Memorial Endowed Scholarship is a one-time award of between $500 and $1,000 that can be used to attend any college or university, Efting said. Since it began, more than $14,000 has been awarded.
To qualify, applicants must either be an immediate family member of one of the fallen firefighters; a child of a member of one of the fire fighting units that fought what officially became known as the South Canyon Fire, including local fire agencies; or a student pursuing a fire management or natural resource degree.
Andy Tyler was just a baby when his dad, a member of the Western Slope Helitack crew based out of Grand Junction, was killed on the fire line.
Late that afternoon of July 6, a dry cold front accompanied by high winds whipped into a raging inferno what had been a relatively small fire burning in steep, rugged terrain on the mid-flanks of 8,793-foot Storm King Mountain.
Fourteen of the dozens of firefighters who were working the fire that day were overtaken by the flames, including nine members of the Prineville Hot Shots, three BLM smokejumpers from Montana and Idaho, and two members of Grand Junction Helitack crew, including Rich Tyler and Rob Browning.
Tyler, who was 33 at the time, had grown up in Minnesota where he met his wife, Patty. They moved to Grand Junction in 1985 after he completed his degree in forestry at the University of Minnesota.
The following year, while responding to a fire, he lost four of his co-workers in a helicopter crash. He went on to become the crew's foreman, emphasizing safety in every aspect of their job, according to a biography of the Storm King 14 printed in a special section put out by the Glenwood Post on July 6, 1995, when the Two Rivers Park monument was dedicated.
"His devotion to the land is demonstrated in his son's middle name, 'Foster,' meaning 'keeper of the forest,'" his biography concluded.
"I know when I was younger, I always thought it was just about the coolest middle name," said Andy Tyler, who turns 21 next month.
"As I got older, I understood the significance, and even though I don't have any memories of my dad, it's a reminder of the influence he had," he said.
Andy and Patty Tyler remained in Grand Junction until he was 3, when they moved back to Minnesota.
"I've been lucky to have a lot of people tell me about him, and I've heard enough stories to know he made a large sacrifice to help save people's homes and do his job," Andy Tyler said of his father.
While growing up, he said, his mother, who never remarried, and other family members would share bits and pieces of the story and what happened that day on Storm King Mountain, adding details as he got older and better able to comprehend the tragedy.
"In middle school, I read 'Fire on the Mountain' by John Maclean," he said of the book by the acclaimed author that chronicles the fire and some of the mistakes that were made in handling the incident.
"It's a fantastic account of what happened, and I learned what a true tragedy it was and how a lot of things went wrong and how it just evolved into a giant mess," Tyler said of the book.
Life wasn't easy growing up without a father, Tyler said, but "it was a fact of life."
"My mom was really strong, though," he said. "It's not easy being a single mother in those circumstances, but she really instilled a good perspective on the situation. I always tried to help her out as much as possible."
Patty Tyler is a registered nurse in Minnesota, while Andy just completed his junior year at Tulane.
Return to Storm King
Andy plans to take part in a day-long commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the tragedy on Sunday, when he will join other relatives of the 14 fallen firefighters for the traditional annual hike up the Storm King Memorial Trail, where 14 granite crosses mark the spots where each died.
It will be his first time on Storm King Mountain since the 10th anniversary in 2004, when he and his mother made the trip. They were also in Glenwood Springs for the fifth anniversary in 1999. His mother will not be here this time, he said.
Other hikers are asked to stay off the trail between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. Sunday out of respect for the families. A public commemoration event will take place at 5 p.m. Sunday in Two Rivers Park, including a procession of fire engines into the park and special speakers.