Watching helplessly as all hell broke loose
July 7, 2014
"This is bad. This is very bad."
These are the words that I remember my brother, a former firefighter, uttering as we watched the Storm King fire blow up from our deck in West Glenwood as the ash fell around us.
Returning from Yellowstone July 3 and driving along I-70 through the South Canyon area, I remember seeing a small fire on the side of the mountain, thinking that it was odd that there really were no firefighting efforts that I could see. It had been a hot, dry June, and July did not look promising.
ONLY 11 ACRES
The following day we planned to celebrate July Fourth. The day after, July 5, was my youngest son's 10th birthday — all causes for celebration. The fire was not as large as others that had ignited over the region. Resources were thin.
According to the South Canyon Investigation Report, on July 4, the fire was given a higher priority than some others in the area in response to concerns from Glenwood Springs residents. An aerial observer reported that the fire was in "… steep and inaccessible terrain." It was covering only 11 acres.
On July 5, Incident Command called for an air tanker to support ground crews that had been sent to cut a helicopter landing area and fire line. A 20-person crew was also ordered, but eight smokejumpers were substituted for the ground crew. The air tanker was called off because of winds, steep terrain and the potential of causing rocks to roll onto I-70. The fire grew to 50 acres. We celebrated my son's birthday.
It was back to work on the morning of July 6. Weather predictions called for gusty winds associated with a cold front. The Prineville Interagency Hotshot Crew was assigned to the fire and arrived at the helibase at 11 a.m. and half the crew were on the fire by 12:30 p.m.
Sometime shortly after noon, I was in my supervisor's office and I looked out the window and the smoke from the fire was billowing ominously west of my house. The sky was turning a dirty brown-orange from the smoke. I pointed out the window and told my boss that I had to head home.
A flare-up had caused a group of smokejumpers to retreat up the fire line to the top of a ridge. According to the South Canyon Investigation Report, several firefighters expressed concern about the safety of tactical decisions. However, a water drop via helicopter cooled the flare-up and they continued.
My home in West Glenwood borders BLM land in back and the golf course on the front. I arrived home to find my family on the west-facing deck that looks directly out on Storm King Mountain. They were watching as a helicopter dipped into the lake on the golf course and flew back to the fire. The wind had picked up and the fire was making its way east — quickly.
Soon, my brother arrived. As a firefighter in California, he had been called to fight numerous wildfires in the hills and mountains west of Los Angeles. He also specializes in wildfire mitigation. He understood the situation. And while I was trying to determine what to throw into our RV should we needed to evacuate, his concern was for the firefighters.
By 3 p.m., the other half of the Prineville Hotshots were on the fire. Winds began to pick up and the smoke grew thicker as the fire activity increased. By then my brother was quite concerned about the wind and the effect it would have on the fire.
"Someone is going to get hurt," he observed.
HELL ON EARTH
At 4 p.m., all hell broke lose. The fire exploded. Incident Command called for the firefighters to come up from the bottom of the fire line. One jumper radioed that the fire was "rolling." The fire spotted to an area just below the crew walking out.
Firefighters Kevin Erickson and Brad Haugh were above the crew encouraging them. Haugh said later that it appeared the crew was unaware of the spot fire below them until they heard its roar. Haugh, Erickson and crew member Eric Hipke made a run for the ridge while the rest of the crew deployed their shelters.
According to the investigation report, "as the three running firefighters dove over the ridgetop, 200-foot flames blasted over the ridge …" Hipke was knocked down by the force of the heat and flames. Pushed by 40 mph winds, the spot fire reached the ridge line in 2 minutes. The rest of the crew — Don Mackey, Roger Roth, James Thrash, Jon Kelso, Kathi Beck, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Tami Bickett, Doug Dunbar and Terri Hagen — died just short of the ridgetop. Helitack crew members Richard Tyler and Robert Browning raced along a ridge above Helispot 2 when their route was cut off by a steep chute. The fire overtook them as they attempted to cross the chute.
From our deck, we watched as the flames crested the ridge. It was very bad indeed — worse than we could know or ever imagine. Storm King Mountain stands as a silent memorial to those 14 fallen firefighters and their teammates whose lives were changed forever. We will never forget.
— Kathy Trauger is a Glenwood Springs resident and writer who blogs about Glenwood Springs at http://www.ourtownglenwoodsprings.com. She chairs the Glenwood Springs Planning & Zoning Commission and is a member of the Transportation Commission and the Victims and Law Enforcement Board.