Prineville mother grieves for Glenwood | PostIndependent.com
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Prineville mother grieves for Glenwood

Dennis Webb

Eight years ago, Glenwood Springs residents were grieving for Sandy Dunbar.

Now, it’s Sandy Dunbar’s turn.

The Oregon resident’s son, Doug, was among the 14 firefighters who died on Storm King Mountain west of town on July 6, 1994. Last week, she expressed surprise and sympathy over the weekend firestorm that burned more than 40 homes and outbuildings.

“It’s pretty astounding that this should happen again,” Dunbar said by telephone. “It seems like Glenwood Springs has had more than its share of problems.”

She ticked off the list – the 1981 Mid-Continent coal mine explosion that killed 15 miners near Redstone, the 1995 Rocky Mountain Natural Gas explosion that killed 12 employees, and the 1994 Storm King fire.

“And now the town threatened and burned. I’d say it’s getting picked on a lot,” she said.

Dunbar already was planning to return to Glenwood Springs at the start of July, just as she does every year to mark the anniversary of her son’s death.

Now, she’ll have other business to attend to.

“We’re anxious to get back there and pat everybody and hug everyone. … It’s time to repay (the city for its kindness). If there’s anything I can do, I’ll do it,” she said.

Eight years ago this July 6, it was Glenwood Springs residents who wanted to do anything they could for Dunbar and the families of 13 other firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice for Glenwood’s sake.

The Storm King fire was started by lightning several days earlier, and had grown slowly before high winds blew it up to more than 2,000 acres in a matter of hours, just as the Coal Seam fire did Saturday.

Doug Dunbar was among nine members of the Hot Shot team from Prineville, Ore., who died when the fire swept up a steep slope on the mountain, overrunning them. Also killed were three smokejumpers and two members of a Grand Junction-based helitack crew.

Forty-nine other firefighters narrowly managed to escape down a ravine into South Canyon, before the ravine also burned. That same ravine also was partly burned in the Coal Seam Fire.

The Storm King fire ran to the edge of West Glenwood, forcing many residents to evacuate, before the winds backed off and firefighters were able to regain control of the situation.

No structures were burned in the 1994 blaze, but many of the same homes that it threatened, including some along Mitchell Creek and some trailers, were consumed by flame Saturday.

Dunbar she first heard about the new fire late Saturday, and had to wait until Sunday to call former Glenwood mayor Bob Zanella to find out more. Zanella was a member of the Storm King 14 Committee. Each member became a liaison with the families of the fallen firefighters. Many of those relationships have turned into lasting friendships.

Dunbar said she also has been contacted since the Coal Seam fire by Jan Bickett, whose daughter, Tamera, died in the 1994 fire. Bickett’s mother had been informed of the fire by Greg Little, her Storm King 14 Committee liaison.

Due to an interest in geology, Dunbar was intrigued by the reports that an underground coal seam fire started Saturday’s blaze.

Dunbar said when she talked to Zanella, she tried to picture the landscape – where the fire struck and where it spread.

“I’m so familiar with it,” said Dunbar, who said she couldn’t imagine a firestorm racing through the same area that burned in 1994.

She also tried to remember where the many Glenwood acquaintances she has made in eight years lived, and to determine whether their homes might have been burned.

Her top concern, however, was for any firefighters that day.

“My very first thought was, `Oh my gosh, I hope nobody was on the fire, because I heard the winds were so high.”

She was pleased to hear that there had not been any injuries, much less deaths, resulting from the fire.

Dunbar knows full well that the disaster that took the life of her son and his comrades is one major reason that the Coal Seam fire has inflicted no casualties.

“The mere fact that it’s Glenwood Springs, where the other one (the Storm King fire) occurred, I think they probably are extra-special cautious because of the memories and what happened.”

Almost overnight, the Storm King disaster became a textbook case, studied by wildland firefighters in the hopes that its lessons might improve their safety.Among the many lessons since 1994, firefighters have been taught to question supervisors’ orders if their safety would appear to be jeopardized. Also, crews obtain regular weather updates, after a forecast of high winds didn’t make it in time to save the Storm King 14.

“It’s a big message,” Dunbar said of the safety lessons from Storm King.

“Just about any fire community that I’ve been in or heard from, they all know about the fire and I’m sure are using it as a training tool. It’s almost always mentioned.”

Knowing this makes the loss of her son a little easier to bear.

“I think that folks have to have something solid to base their learning on and to be able to transfer their emotions to and from, whether they know it or not. They can say, `well, these 14 young people like you and I lost their lives trying to protect some homes or just doing a summer job.’ Whether they’ve realized it or not, they’ve kind of put themselves in their (the fallen firefighters’) places.

“I’m glad that my son is a part of that,” Dunbar said.

For all that has been learned since Storm King, Dunbar is frustrated to hear that firefighters still struggle with too-few resources on fires, as in 1994. The massive Hayman fire outside Denver, along with other fires in Colorado and elsewhere, have drawn away manpower and air support that otherwise could have been used in Glenwood Springs.

“That part ruffled my feathers a little bit when I heard it, because that’s what happened the first time. It bothered me a lot.”

“I think in Denver there should be enough other resources that they could have waited. If I were putting people on the fire I would put them in Glenwood Springs first.”

Then again, she admitted that she is partial to Glenwood Springs. Since her son died trying to protect the town, she has become attached to it.

“I have, I have; it’s my second home. I love it there, and the people, and of course my connection will always be there.”

After the latest fire, this year’s return to Glenwood will be a bit different for Dunbar than other visits have been. Last year’s visit was different, too.

Her brother, who was close to Doug both in age and friendship, finally worked up the nerve to make the hike to where Doug died.

“That was the first time he felt that he could go up there, and he didn’t decide until the night before that he would go up there with me. So that was a really special trip for me,” she said. “It was very rewarding.”

Not surprisingly, it’s hard for Dunbar to believe eight years have passed since her son’s death. The pain and memories of the loss are still much too fresh.

“It’s still very much there, especially in the springtime,” she said.

She is constantly reminded because she lives in a part of the country where timber and firefighting are part of the culture.

“We’re constantly surrounded with things like this,” said Dunbar, whose daughter works for the Forest Service in the summers – but not, Dunbar says gratefully, in firefighting.

As the years have passed, Glenwood Springs has stopped conducting formal remembrances of the Storm King deaths, and that’s fine with Dunbar. Private remembrances by the families continue to occur, she said.

“I think most everyone manages to slip back there at some time during the year.”

Dunbar also belongs to the Prineville Hotshots Parents Committee, which meets each summer for a picnic and catches up on the happenings of the last year. Parents of the fallen Storm King Hotshots come from all over Oregon to attend.

Glenwood Springs residents promised not to forget the 14 who died, and Oregonians haven’t forgotten their nine.

When contacted for this story last week, Dunbar e-mailed back, “I just returned to the office after a brief stop in a local parking lot. The attendant came up and said she was thinking of me because she heard of the fire in Glenwood Springs, and that it brought back to her all the memories of the tragic event of eight years ago.

“She was so sweet. My license plates are PRNVL9, and when she started working there a couple years ago she had asked me what they meant.

“So many people here in the Eugene area remember the fire. Several of the TV stations finally related it to the current Glenwood Springs fire. I think that is very compassionate,” she said.

Dunbar said it has been frustrating, though, struggling to find out the details of the last week’s events in Glenwood, especially after the fire near Denver took over the headlines.

Informed that the Glenwood firefighters are living in a tent city at Two Rivers Park, and that many of them pause at the Storm King memorial there to pay their respects to the fallen 14, she said, “I just got chills when you told me that. That’s really kind of emotional.”

She also was moved to hear that some firefighters have spoken in the last week of 14 spirits on Storm King who perhaps in some way helped keep the fire from doing more damage.

“That’s really nice. And they are there. I’m sure they are there.”


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