25 years ago 14 firefighters were killed on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado
Today, July 6, is the 25th anniversary of the fatalities on the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. In 1994, 14 firefighters were overrun by the fire on Storm King Mountain.
A trail leads to the spots where each of them were found. Granite markers, 14 of them, have the firefighters’ names and their years of birth — and death.
People who complete the strenuous hike to the 14 sites often leave something that to them, and perhaps to the deceased, had a special meaning.
During several trips to the mountain over the last couple of years Barry Stevenson of Outside Adventure Media shot video of the memorial sites. There is no narration or musical sound track. You will hear only the sounds of nature — birds, insects, and an occasional breeze.
The Storm King Mountain Memorial Trail honors the 14 hotshots, smoke jumpers, and helitack personnel who perished in the fire:
Kathi Beck, Tami 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.
When I worked at Log Springs in 1968 on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California I don’t remember much discussion about the catastrophe that killed 15 wildland firefighters only a couple of dozen miles away 15 years before. The Rattlesnake Fire was not a huge campaign fire that blackened tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to contain. It burned about 1,300 acres and was declared under control roughly 40 hours after Stan Pattan threw the match out the window of his green Buick, July 9, 1953.
All but one of the firefighters that perished that day were affiliated with the New Tribes Mission based at a nearby facility at Fouts Springs. Known to the locals as missionaries, they often mobilized firefighters from their group as needed when fires were burning in the area. Some had taken fire training, and others had none. The 15th person killed was a Forest Service employee who had volunteered to carry food to the missionaries who were working on a spot fire at night down in a drainage where they could not be seen by the other personnel on the fire. And, the missionaries could not see the rest of the fire.
John N. Maclean, an author well known in wildland fire circles for his previous work, has released a new book about the Rattlesnake Fire, titled River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys. The official release is today, June 23 at the 75th Region 4 Smokejumper Reunion in McCall, Idaho.
The book builds on the piece about the fire that Mr. Maclean included in his Fire and Ashes book published in 2003 which also had sections about three additional wildland fire topics. The new book adds more details and includes information from, and sections written by, firefighters who have recently worked in the area, including three past superintendents of the Mendocino Hotshots. There are also photos freshly-taken by Kari Greer, a photographer who specializes in wildland fire. Mr. Maclean told us that one of the themes of this book is “Passing It On”, which is the title of the foreword written in May, 2018 by Don Will, Superintendent of the Mendocino Hotshots from 1988 to 1994. The book explains that the Mendocino Hotshots were the unofficial caretakers of the tragedy site for years.
River of Fire has a number very compelling stories scattered throughout. For example, it describes the process of developing the first air tanker that could drop water on a fire. In the early 1950’s there had been some attempts at designing an apparatus that could drop water from an airplane, but everything was crude and not effective. Two years after the fire, in 1955, Joe Ely, the fire control officer on the Mendocino who also helped fight the Rattlesnake Fire, worked with a crop-duster pilot named Vance Nolta who designed a tank with a gate and a dump valve that could be operated from the cockpit. A test of the system on a fire intentionally ignited along a runway at the Willows, California airport was a success. Later that year it was first used on a wildfire near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest.
There is also a touching story about a young child who lived at the Fouts Springs missionary camp when the fire started in 1953. Her father was killed in the fire, and as she grew up her mother did not talk about him or how he died. But in 2010 she found information about the tragedy online and had to find out more. After driving eight hours from Oregon she contacted the Forest Supervisor’s office in Willows and asked for directions. Here is an excerpt from one of the later sections of the book:
…Instead, they acquired two eager tour guides, the former and current hotshot superintendents [Daren] Dalrymple and [Jon] Tishner, who volunteered to take them to the site and show them around. “I knew there had to be people like her out there,” Dalrymple said. “It was the best day on the hill I’ve ever had.”
The tragedy led to the development of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders as well as changes in wildland fire training, safety standards, and awareness of weather and fire behavior.
For decades there was not much at the site to identify it or interpret what took place on that fateful day. In 1993 a plaque was installed that had the names of the firefighters that perished, and in 2005 a new interpretive and training site overlooking the area in Grindstone Canyon was built on the old Alder Springs Road. It features exhibits describing the events that day in 1953, and trails lead visitors along the routes taken by those 15 firefighters, and the ones who survived.
The development of the memorial and the maintenance of the trails and the original firelines and dozer lines help to facilitate the numerous visits and staff rides each year. Passing on the lessons learned to new generations of firefighters can help build up their knowledge base about fire behavior and weather and may keep them from repeating some of the unfortunate decisions that led to the deaths of 14 missionaries and one agency employee.
There are, of course, other wildfires where large numbers of wildland firefighters died — the 1910 fires (85 killed), the Griffith Park Fire in 1933 in a Los Angeles City Park (29, most were not firefighters but were pulled from other tasks to work on the fire), Blackwater Fire of 1937 (15), Mann Gulch of 1949 (13), Inaja in 1956 (11), South Canyon Fire of 1994 (14), and the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire (19).
We asked Mr. Maclean for permission to use an excerpt from the book (longer than the brief one above), and this is what he sent us:
During the photo shoot for this book this spring, Kari Greer, photographer, and Daren Dalrymple, former Mendocino Hotshot Superintendent, ran into two young men, a former firefighter and a hopeful one, hiking the firelines at the site.
“When Daren and I were up there,” said Kari, “these two guys drove up and chatted with us briefly when we were shooting near the Gillaspy ranch. They said they were headed for the Rattlesnake site and they proceeded on to the Overlook. They must have stopped there, paid respects and read about the fire, and then walked around a bit from there.”
She said the two continued all the way up to Powderhouse Turn, while she and Daren stayed at the Overlook wrapping up the photo shoot. They watched as the hikers made their way along the stand trails and the staff ride locations, spotting them now and then through the brush and across the canyon on the north slope.
“It was interesting to see it to scale,” said Kari, “the size of the guys hiking in the chaparral and their pace as they traversed the landscape. They did the entire thing, even going down to Cecil Hitchcock’s cross at the bottom and clear up to Stanley Vote’s cross at the top. This showed us that they knew the history and were doing the full experience.
“Daren and I made our way up to Powderhouse Turn, and we caught up with them as they were hiking out, coming up the Access Route that goes downhill to the Missionary Spot Fire. We talked a bit more with the two of them and learned that José Gonzalez was here being mentored by Daniel Hartrum, who is a former firefighter, now a teacher. José was working hard; he was wearing a Pack Test Vest and carrying a tool. They told us he was hoping to get hired onto a crew and Daniel was giving him some field experience at the site.”
The book is very well written and edited, as usual for a John N. Maclean product. As mentioned above, much of the content is from the Fire and Ashes book published 15 years ago, but there is a good deal of new text and updated information covering what has transpired in the intervening years. The contributions by the three hotshot superintendents are especially valuable. I recommend this book for Students of Fire and all wildland firefighters for the lessons that can be learned, especially if they have not read the Fire and Ashes book. It would be a good reading assignment before participating in a staff ride at the site.
The black and white photos are helpful to figure out the context and geography. The electronic version expected late this summer or autumn will have Kari’s photos in all their glorious color. It will be available for Amazon Kindle devices or apps, and Apple products.
It 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.
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.
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 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.”
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.