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As I See It

Hal Sundin

It is almost inconceivable that Glenwood Springs could be the site of two catastrophic conflagrations in less than ten years, and that the two events were right next to each other.

In early July 1994, 2,500 acres of Storm King Mountain burned. Confined almost exclusively to Bureau of Land Management lands on the western and southern flanks of Storm King Mountain, the fire did not destroy any homes. But due to a couple of tragic errors, it resulted in the deaths of fourteen of the courageous firefighters who were battling that blaze.

The first error was letting two days go by without taking any action to extinguish what was still a small lightning strike fire. Then on the day after it began to spread and some 40 firefighters had been brought in to try to bring it under control, a crucial warning from a Grand Junction weather observer that high winds were expected in the area of the fire that afternoon never reached the fire command center or those on the fireline. When the predicted winds hit, the fire blew up into a towering inferno which took the lives of fourteen firefighters – lives which could have been spared if they had only received that warning.

For some strange reason, the Storm King Mountain fire was called the “South Canyon” fire by the overviewing authority, in spite of the fact that the fire neither originated in nor touched South Canyon. How ironic that the June 2002 fire that burned off the east side of Storm King Mountain, which the 1994 fire had barely touched, did start in South Canyon. For obvious reasons, it was not called the South Canyon fire – that would have really caused some confusion – but was named the “Coal Seam” fire, for the burning coal seam which set it off.

The lessons learned from the 1994 Storm King tragedy were heeded in fighting the Coal Seam Fire. It was recognized from the beginning that immediate action was crucial, and everyone involved was intensely aware of the potential risk presented by the high winds that were expected in the afternoon. As a result, even though this fire was five times as large as the Storm King Mountain fire, not a single life was lost and no serious injuries occurred. On the other hand, this time around nearly thirty homes were destroyed (but they can be rebuilt, even though their treasured contents can never be replaced). What is truly remarkable, and a credit to the firemen and policemen who were involved, is that in spite of the explosive spread of the fire across the Colorado River and Interstate 70, they were able to get everyone in the area out safely.

Fortunately, after the Coal Seam Fire, we do not have any lost lives to mourn. But we do have people whose lives have been disrupted, who have lost everything in their homes which was dear to them, and who in many cases are facing significant financial hardship.

In 1994, Glenwood Springs poured out its heart to the families of the firefighters who lost their lives in the effort to protect our city, created a monument in their memory, and gave generously to help reduce the financial burden on the families of those who were lost.

Now it is again time for Glenwood Springs to pour out its heart to our fellow residents who have lost so much and continue to suffer from this disaster. We cannot bring back the family photos, the keepsakes, or the heirlooms which were consumed by the flames, but the pain of dislocation can be softened for those who lost their homes if we all pitch in with generous donations to ease their financial burden.

In 1994 the people of Glenwood Springs dug deep into their pockets and came up with more than $250,000 for the families of the 14 firefighters who died on Storm King Mountain. Now we should and surely can contribute an even larger amount to the 29 families in our own community whose homes and everything in them have been destroyed.

The Red Cross and the city are administering relief funds for those who have lost their homes, all of which will be used to benefit the fire victims. So all of us who were spared the agony of losing our homes to the fire should make as generous a contribution as possible to help those who were less fortunate. Make your check payable to “Coal Seam Fire Fund” and deliver it to any participating Glenwood Springs bank.

Glenwood Springs resident Hal Sundin’s column runs every other Thursday in the Post Independent.


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