Staring at a mountain on fire at the beginning of grief
July 6, 2014
I was in my backyard near the intersection of Mitchell Creek and Donegan roads that hot, dry afternoon. The wind had suddenly kicked up and a large plume of black smoke blew over Storm King Mountain. The air had been hazy from several fires throughout western Colorado, but this looked big, and it was racing toward my house. I called 911, the operator sounded frantic and there was a lot of background noise. She took my information and said they were responding.
I heard sirens on the interstate and watched thickening smoke darken a blood red sun. My home and neighborhood were in danger of incineration. Joanne and I loaded my truck with a couple of litter boxes, cat and dog food, water, bowls and beds. We rounded up all four cats, and got them under the camper shell. We put the dog in the house and thought about what to save next. We chose our rafting gear, and loaded Joanne’s pickup with a raft, frame, oars, life jackets and camping gear, all our prized possessions. Finally, we packed a suitcase with clothes, toiletries and a few photos.
We waited and watched as flames marched up the crest of the mountain behind our house, wondering when it would start to creep down the hill and force us to leave. Firefighters stationed at our corner told us we didn’t have to evacuate, but we should be ready to go at a moment’s notice.
They were hoping the fire would lay down for the night, and explained how fires tended to behave when the sun went down, wind eased up, temperature dropped and humidity increased. They explained that fire travels slower downhill, which was why they were comfortable letting us stay in our home. Then they got on our roof and set up our garden hose sprinkler.
We overheard radio chatter from the firefighters on our corner and noticed concern and worry on their faces. They confirmed that 50 of their colleagues were missing after the fire had blown up. We sat in stunned silence staring at that mountain on fire. It was the beginning of a long night praying for strangers who put it all on the line to protect our lives, while we waited for the knock on our door to evacuate.
Our house was hot and stuffy with the windows closed, and unbearably smoky if we opened them. The cats howled their displeasure in the truck, but they were safe and ready to go if we had to get out in a hurry.
In the morning, smoke had settled low in the valley, creating an otherworldly effect. We cheered when air tankers arrived and made slurry drops, hitting their target. Helicopters made water drops, and progress was made despite an afternoon run when the wind picked up. We were relieved to find out that several of the missing had shown up through the night, but we were devastated to learn that 14 had died.
Our community mourned as we learned about the lives that were lost. Our hearts ached for the families grieving their losses, we wanted to help but nothing can bring back a life that has passed.
Glenwood Springs built a memorial and a trail and vowed never to forget. It was all we could do.
Soon after the trail was completed, Joanne and I hiked it to pay our respects. We hiked up the hot trail thinking about the conditions that day and the gear those firefighters carried. When we got to the overlook we were stopped by the difficulty of the “trail.” We looked over the site at the crosses going up the hill. I’m struck by how close to the top and probable safety they were. We could feel the fear and panic in those last desperate moments when some deployed shelters while others never had the chance. We were angry that more could have been done to fight the fire earlier, while understanding how thinly stretched resources were that summer.
Firefighting techniques have since been reviewed and new policies instituted with the goal of improving the safety of personnel fighting wildland fires. Still, only last year 19 died at Yarnell and we grieve again. We may never be able to eliminate risk from firefighting, but it must be our goal.
All I can promise is I will never forget.