Heroes among us
I love firefighters. It’s just in my blood.Last week, I was reminded of the extent of my admiration while climbing Storm King Mountain. Sunday, July 6, 2008, was the 14th anniversary of the fateful day when 14 firefighters and smokejumpers died on the mountain attempting to control a spreading wildfire in South Canyon.I was motivated to complete the rugged hike by a hero I never met. A man who would be my age if he were alive today. He was an outdoorsman and athlete who passed away at 22 – the same age I graduated from college and began my career in journalism. His name was Levi Brinkley, of the Prineville (Oregon) Hotshot crew. His name is one I’ll never forget.I first met Levi’s dad, Ken, last year at the Storm King Mountain trailhead while working on a story on the fire’s 13th anniversary. I was deep in an emotional interview with Sandy Dunbar – whose son, Doug, is one of the Storm King 14 and the same age as me – as Ken was coming off the mountain. Ken had visited Levi’s stone cross, which marks the spot where he lost his life doing what he loved, every year since the tragedy.With mounting gas prices and a slumping economy, this year would be different.”I just can’t reward the oil companies with a $300 gas bill to get there and back,” Ken wrote to me in an e-mail.Ken needed a favor.”If someone goes up on the 6th,” he wrote. “Would you put your hand on Levi’s cross and say a little prayer?”I could think of nothing more important than granting his wish.As Ken wrote the e-mail, one of Levi’s brothers was jumping fires in California – where to date more than 8,000 residences have been threatened. The fires are so destructive that firefighters and smokejumpers from Australia, Greece, Mexico and New Zealand are being called in to help.Just like Levi, who was called in to Glenwood Springs to protect our mountain paradise.I was more than eager to help Ken and his family honor their fallen son and brother because it’s in my blood. I grew up around firefighting. I have an uncle who is a firefighter in Indiana. For decades my grandfather was a volunteer fireman – and later an arson detective – whose passion for fire prevention and safety has never been snuffed out. I remember playing in my grandpa’s big rubber fire boots as a kid. And wearing his fire hat that was way to big for my head.Just last week my 82-year-old grandfather informed my mother that a few years back he helped battle a big fire in Brown County, Ind., that threatened the Hoosier National Forest. He looked behind him to see a wall of fire, forcing him down a steep incline into a stream. This, when he was in his 70s and supposed to be enjoying a quiet retirement in the woods. He’ll never shake that firefighting bug. It’s in his blood.One of my favorite stories my gramps used to tell – which probably wouldn’t go over too well in today’s politically correct day and age – regards a repeat customer to the small fire department where he volunteered. One particularly lonely lady would report the smell of smoke in and around her home on a consistent basis. The fire crew would arrive to find her spread out on the couch wearing lingerie and a big smile.She must have been feeling hot and needed her fire put out. Or maybe she needed another log put on her fire.So many puns, so little time.Of course I know firefighting is no joke and is serious business, especially in states such as Colorado and California, where wildfires can turn deadly in an instant. The job of a firefighter and smokejumper takes courage and dedication. Those brave men and women willing to put their lives on the line for Mother Nature and complete strangers have a special place in my heart. As do Levi and Doug.The Brinkleys know the sacrifice. So does Sandy Dunbar and the other parents of the Storm King 14.To show appreciation for the men and women who protect our homes and land and who gave their lives here in Glenwood, I recommend a trek up to the crosses on Storm King Mountain. Leave early, bring plenty of water and take your time. It’s a tough one, both physically and emotionally. But it’s worth it to show some love.Whether it’s in your blood or not.April E. Clark quietly says, “Godspeed,” every time she sees a fire engine on a run. She hopes others consider doing the same. She can be reached at aclark@ postindependent.com.
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