Tears at Glenwood Springs

South Canyon 20 yearsIt was hot when I arrived at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs for the ceremony to honor the memories of the 14 firefighters that died virtually within sight of the park 20 years ago on Storm King Mountain. Arriving 45 minutes before it was scheduled to begin, hoping to get the lay of the land and a good seat, the 90-degree heat had driven others to the sparse shade offered by a handful of trees around the perimeter of the space laid out in front of the stage.

Hundreds of white folding chairs were behind signs explaining that they were for the families and the elderly — all empty at that point. No one wanted to bake in the sun waiting for the commemoration to begin. Near the chairs was a small tent housing a sound board with dozens of dials and sliders like you would see at a concert.

By the time the program began, about a third of the white chairs were filled. Bob Zanella, who was the mayor of Glenwood Springs 20 years ago and was asked to be the master of ceremonies, said it looked like there would be room for everyone to sit in the chairs. Some people that were standing or sitting on the ground did take up the offer, but many remained where they were, comfortable in their shady spots. Several groups of uniformed firefighters, including the Craig Hotshots, stood in casual straight lines near the back, some in the shade and others in the bright, hot sun.

After taking some photos, I found a suitable shady spot on the ground. I could not see the stage because of the people that were standing behind the chairs, but could hear most of what the seven speakers said. Bagpipes, drums, Honor Guards and Color Guards set the mood.

Usually at a ceremony like this, there will be several politicians and heads of land management agencies either asked, or asking, to speak to the gathered crowd. But not yesterday at Two Rivers Park. One of the organizers told me that there was a conscious effort to avoid a parade of dignitaries across the stage. They wanted to keep it local and real. No one wants to hear a Senator or Assistant Secretary of Something blather on while no one is paying attention.

All of the speakers kept it meaningful, and personal. And they were all fairly brief except for one who began by saying he was allotted five minutes but could not do it in just five.

Near the end of the program a very, very light rain began to fall. The drops were few, tiny, invisible, and cold as they fell through the sunlight. No one left their seat or scrambled for shelter. It was not enough rain to get wet but I did shield my camera from the scattered rain drops. I looked at the sky and thought of tears.

When the Twin Otter smokejumper aircraft dropped the 14 purple streamers over Two Rivers Park, one landed about 15 feet from where I was sitting on the ground. A smiling small boy ran over and picked it up just after it landed.

After the program ended with a moment of silence many of the attendees walked about a hundred yards over to the memorial to see the statue of the three firefighters — a smokejumper, a firefighter with a chain saw over her shoulder, and a third holding an aviation helmet used by helitack crews. Surrounding the sculpture are 14 plaques with photos and descriptions of each of the firefighters that perished two decades ago. I was standing next to an elderly gentleman, and at first I thought he was wiping away a bug on his face, but he wasn’t. It was tears.

South Canyon Fire, 20th year commemoration

On Sunday I attended the event at Glenwood Springs, Colorado that memorialized the 14 firefighters that died on Storm King Mountain while fighting the South Canyon Fire two decades ago.

Marsha Rogers has never been a wildland firefighter but has been friends with several of them off and on over the years. Having been at the commemoration on Sunday she was kind enough to share her impressions from the standpoint of a wildfire outsider who has a passing familiarity of what it is like to be a wildland firefighter.


On Sunday, July 6, the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the South Canyon Fire was held in Glenwood Springs, CO. The event honored the 14 firefighters who lost their lives in that fire, and several speakers who addressed those in attendance reflected on the events of July 6, 1994, and how that fire has changed not only the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but changed firefighting operations.

Fellowship among firefighters was evident throughout the service, from the engine procession, to the presentation of colors, to the crews standing together with heads bowed in a moment of silence, remembering the Storm King 14.

Daniel Jiron, U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester, commented on what we have learned from the South Canyon Fire, saying the event changed what questions should be asked. Jiron said firefighting was not just a job, but a vocation, and said firefighters share “a fellowship no one would understand.”

Ralph Holtby of Prineville, Oregon, father of deceased firefighter Bonnie Holtby, initially turned down the invitation to speak, but he couldn’t sleep that night, so changed his mind. Holtby recalled July 7, 1994, when the USFS came to his door. “Twenty years have gone by,” said Holtby, “but we’re still here. We still remember.”

A smoke jumper in college, Holtby understood firefighting. “Think!” was Holtby’s advice to firefighters, encouraging them to think of the weather, the terrain, and their comrades.

He reflected on the kindness, generosity, and compassion that came from the community after the tragedy. He said people donated funds, and parents of the firefighters who died formed a committee, and wanted to build a monument to memorialize the fallen.

The statue at the memorial site in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
The statue at the memorial site in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

One monument was built at Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, and sits near the base of Storm King Mountain. At the center of the monument is a bronze statue depicting three firefighters, and is surrounded by memorial stones for each of the 14 firefighters who lost their lives on the mountain. A split piece of granite was on display, with a plaque describing that the other half of the piece of granite was in Prineville, Oregon, home to several of the fallen firefighters.

Holtby had walked the trail up the mountain Friday morning with his wife, brother, and three grandkids – the youngest was one year old, and was carried by his 15-year-old brother. Although Holtby expressed that it’s tough to get closure, and that it still hurts, he encouraged others to adapt to what life brings, to keep on going, and try to help others. “God willing,” said Holtby, “we will go on to a better and finer day.”

John Maclean, on the South Canyon Fire

John N. Maclean, the author of Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire, has written an article for the National Geographic website about the South Canyon Fire, but he also draws some comparisons between that fire and the Yarnell Hill Fire that occurred 19 years later. The two disasters killed a total of 33 firefighters.

The article is worth reading, especially if your memory of the details of the South Canyon Fire has faded. Below is a paragraph from the piece:

When the South Canyon Fire exploded into a blowup, a sudden burst of flame that sweeps all before it, there were 49 firefighters scattered across an area later known as Hell’s Gate Ridge, which extends like a mighty arm of Storm King Mountain. Mackey, the smoke jumper in charge, directed one group to safety. He then faced a daunting choice: Stay with the group headed for safety, or hike back into dense brush to check on a dozen firefighters who were digging and cutting a fireline, a trench about 18 inches wide, to try to contain the flames. He turned back to join the firefighters in the brush, an act of selflessness that became known in the wildland fire community as a “Don Mackey moment.”

Perspectives: before, during, and after the 1994 South Canyon Fire

As I pack to begin my journey to attend the 20-year commemoration of the 1994 South Canyon Fire that killed 14 firefighters in Colorado, I am thinking back on three video interviews with a couple of dozen firefighters who were either on the fire, or dealt with some of the fallout over the next 20 years. It is interesting and in some cases refreshing to see them speak out, sometimes bluntly, about how the safety culture of wildland firefighters has changed since South Canyon.

Every firefighter should see this first video, titled Everyone goes home published on YouTube on May 30, 2013. It includes an assortment of people with various degrees of involvement in the South Canyon Fire.

The next two videos, 2014 WFSTAR: Parts One & Two, 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, are about the lessons learned after the fire. In the video, 11 firefighters that survived tell their stories.

As a bonus, check out the excellent July 3 article at Oregonlive that includes video interviews with three survivors of the fire, Alex Robertson, Sarah Doehring, and Michelle Ryerson.

Post Independent: lessons learned after South Canyon Fire

South Canyon Fire
The blow-up at the South Canyon fire, July 6, 1994 between 1630 and 1700. The photo is from the report.

A newspaper based in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the Post Independent, is publishing a series of articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire that occurred just outside of town. Today’s piece concentrates on the lessons learned following the deaths of the 14 firefighters. In spite of the fact that they quoted this writer, it is worth reading.

Below is a brief excerpt that quotes Bill Hannenberg, who in 1994 worked on the White River National Forest in Meeker, Colorado. Today he is a Type 1 Incident Commander on the Portland National Incident Management Organization Team.

…Another improvement made after South Canyon, [Hannenberg] said, was in the way fire agencies, both federal land fire managers and local fire departments, communicate with each other and cooperate on fire incidents.

A criticism 20 years ago was that, with resources spread thin fighting dozens of fires across the Western Slope, the BLM decided to monitor the small lightning-caused fire on Storm King Mountain during the initial three days after it started.

Local fire agencies reportedly offered to hike up and put out the fire soon after it started, but were advised by BLM officials to wait until they could bring the more highly trained wildland firefighters in.

“The level of coordination between federal agencies and city or county fire organizations is much, much higher now,” Hahnenberg said. “There is also a greater emphasis on wildland fire training and capability with the local departments.”

Other articles in the Post Independent’s series about the South Canyon Fire are here, here, and here.

The public is invited to a commemoration to honor the 14 firefighters who died 20 years ago, July 6, 1994, on Storm King Mountain while fighting the South Canyon Fire. It will be held on July 6 from 4:45 p.m. until 6 p.m in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Those 14 firefighters were: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, Jim Thrash, and Richard Tyler.

A Week to Remember

Week to remember

In addition to remembering the 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots who were killed a year ago today, this Week to Remember will include a commemoration to honor the 14 firefighters who died 20 years ago, July 6, 1994, on Storm King Mountain while fighting the South Canyon Fire.

The public is invited to the event for the South Canyon Fire which will be on July 6 from 4:45 p.m. until 6 p.m in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Those 14 firefighters were: Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Robert Browning, Doug Dunbar, Terri Hagen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson, Jon Kelso, Don Mackey, Roger Roth, Jim Thrash, and Richard Tyler.

More information about the event in Glenwood Springs.