Stroud column: Something in the air reminds me of this day in 1994 | PostIndependent.com

Stroud column: Something in the air reminds me of this day in 1994

A smoke plume rises to the south of Glenwood Springs over the Lake Christine Fire, and I can't help but be eerily reminded of another large column of smoke that suddenly appeared above town two dozen years ago to this day.

Indeed, I will never forget, as I promised along with the entire Glenwood Springs community in the days following the July 6, 1994 tragedy on Storm King Mountain.

To this day, each year, those who still remember take a collective moment to honor that pledge we made to the families of the 14 federal wildland firefighters who lost their lives defending our town from the fire on Storm King.

I wrote on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of that horrible event that I vividly remember exactly where I was when it happened; preparing a weekly news report in the KDNK studios when the intense winds from a passing cold front halted the spin of a nearby window fan.

Moments later, from that second-floor window in downtown Carbondale, we watched in horror as a large smoke plume appeared down toward Glenwood.

We soon learned that fire fighters who'd come from places like Prineville, Oregon and Missoula, Montana to fight our fire were unaccounted for. Later, we in the news media had to report the awful news that 14 of them perished on our mountain that afternoon.

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Many lessons were learned in the weeks and months of debriefing after the Storm King tragedy. Reports were written, even books. New protocols were established to ensure the safety of fire fighters in future wildfire events, still others have been lost along the way.

As I write this, our collective Roaring Fork Valley community is on edge as hundreds of homes are threatened, some already lost, and everyone is praying for the safety of the fire fighters, and that of all who are involved.

It's odd to hear people, from the casual observer to even veteran fire fighters, talk about not having seen such erratic fire behavior in all their years. Because we did see it on Storm King Mountain 24 years ago, and again in June 2002 when the Coal Seam Fire blew up, consuming several West Glenwood homes in its path.

In the case of Storm King, a relatively small, lightning-caused fire grew from a single tree one night, to a few acres the next day, then to a few hundred acres — then the deadly inferno.

When fires grow to the magnitude of the Lake Christine Fire, they start to create their own weather. While it might be calm just down valley in Carbondale or Glenwood, winds are whipping around at 50 mph within the fire itself.

What I fear we haven't learned in all these years is how we all should conduct ourselves when the fire danger is as bad as it is in years like this. It could be the worst ever, by my own estimation having lived through enough of these dry years to gain some perspective.

I was pleased the night we celebrated our American Independence Wednesday when I didn't hear a single firework being set off in Carbondale. Of course, nothing like a raging fire in our back yard to reinforce the seriousness of it all.

At the same time, I've observed many a smoker casually flicking their cig out a car window, or while standing on a street corner.

One small spark, people, that's all it takes.

As we all worked, rather than celebrated, our Independence on Wednesday I also had to wonder if some of the freedom awarded through that independence doesn't come at a high cost in times like this.

Like, oh, I don't know, enabling a couple of inconsiderate gun-lovers to shoot off illegal exploding tracer rounds at a gun range that should have been closed given the high fire danger.

Glenwood Springs saw fit to close its shooting range in South Canyon weeks ago, while Colorado Parks and Wildlife, operators of the Lake Christine facility, was asleep at the wheel.

I also question how the operator of a fireworks stand at the base of bone-dry Cattle Creek Valley can live with himself, selling instruments of potential devastating destruction to a public that maybe, I hope, has received and retains the message that this is simply not the year.

Put them away for winter, please.

And for today, please take time to remember the ultimate sacrifice made for our town on July 6, 1994.

John Stroud is Editor of the Post Independent