Friday, July 18, 2014

Storm King: South Canyon 20th Anniversary

The South Canyon Fire forever changed how we approach wildfire. July 6, 1994, is a date that bonded many in a common loss, forever changed 14 families and shook communities with the loss of their finest.

Storm King Mountain, just west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, claimed 14 firefighters some 20 years ago. Twenty years, a blink in time to so many who lost so much that day.

For Jill Hagan, the mother of Terri Ann Hagan who died that day, returning to the mountain was a chance to "… just touch the ground where [her daughter] spent her last moments."

For survivors, it was a chance to remember their brothers and sisters that didn't make it off the mountain.

For firefighters, it was a chance to recall the lessons learned from the tragic loss. One of the most important lessons learned from the fatal fire was the importance of communication and collaboration. Appropriately, it was the communication and collaboration of many across multiple agencies that helped make this event a success…

Smokejumpers flew over Storm King Mountain to honor the 14 firefighters who lost their lives fighting the South Canyon Fire 20 years ago. During the flyover, the plane dropped 14 streamers on the mountain to represent each of the firefighters.
Agencies spanning local, state and federal met for nearly a year to perfect the plan for this event. Planners had to get this right. There were logistical challenges, potential weather hazards and the safety concerns of getting an aging group to the location where these heroes fell.

The Climb

Perhaps the most difficult glaring challenge planners faced was how to get family members 20 years senior to the top of Storm King. Trails to the memorials have remained unimproved to preserve the nature of wildland firefighting and remind visitors of the perils of the job. The average age of the 14 lost is 27. The age of the parents of the lost firefighters ranged in the 70's and 80's. The obvious hazard these visitors traversing the mountain had to be addressed.

Visitors trek up the mountain to pay their respects to the 14 firefighters who lost their lives in the South Canyon Fire.
 Planners relied on the skills of the professionals attending the remembrance. Wildland firefighters from across the country made the trek to Storm King and provided aid and safety along the trail leading to the mountain. Firefighters were stationed approximately every 200 yards along the trail that crosses two drainages gaining several thousand feet. They paid their respects by helping the families of the Storm King 14 a chance to trek the mountain.

"Since the beginning of the planning process this event has been about the families who lost loved ones on Storm King Mountain," said Lathan Johnson, a firefighter with the Upper Colorado Interagency Fire Management Unit. "It's been an honor and a privilege to help the families experience time on the mountain where their loved ones lost their lives."

For some family members, hip replacements, respiratory ailments and other typical limiting physical conditions made a hike to the top impossible. So, planners reached out to the Colorado National Guard to provide a platform to get family members to the top of this difficult mountain. A Lakota helicopter.

A Colorado National Guard helicopter made several trips to the top of Storm King Mountain to transport family members of the deceased who wouldn't otherwise be able to make the trip up the mountain.
Carolyn Roth, mother of Roger Roth and now in her 70s, lacked the physical ability to make the climb. "I would not be able to be here if it weren't for the National Guard,"said Carolyn.

Sandy Dunbar, mother of Douglas Michael Dunbar, recently had hip replacement. With tears in her eyes she said, "I made a promise that I would make it up here 14 times. I was so worried I wouldn't keep my promise."

Firefighters helped family members out of the helicopter at the top of the mountain so they could visit the memorials of those they lost in 1994.
Colorado National Guard's support of the missions speaks to the magnitude of this loss and the nature of it spanning so many communities. "It was our honor to support these families," said Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi of the Colorado National Guard. The support mission had specific importance to Somogyi, a Palisade, Colorado native who attended high school in the same community of helitack crew member Richard Kent Tyler. Somogyi recalls the fatal fire well and remembers the overwhelming feeling of loss he and the community felt.

The Next Generation
For a new generation of firefighters and land resource agency leaders, returning to the site of the South Canyon Fire reinforces the lessons learned.

"It was so important for me to see this important place to understand the amazing work of our wildland firefighters," said Ruth Welch, BLM Colorado state director. Ruth hiked to the site of the fatalities to pay respects and get an idea of the events that took place on the fire. "To stand where those firefighters spent their final minutes was powerful."

Mike Watson, a captain with the Prineville Hotshot crew, had read books and investigation reports but visited Storm King Mountain for the first time on the 20th Anniversary. "It's a bit of an eye opener. But for the grace of good fortune go. This could have been me," said Watson. "You can't help but look at the mountain and wonder what I would have done in this situation."

Andy Tyler, now 20, lost a father he never knew. Andy was only months old when the fire claimed his father, Rich Tyler. Hiking to the site of his father's death helped Andy understand more about his father's life. It helped him understand what his father's life meant to his friends and fellow firefighters. "I've learned that my father enjoyed helitack and making a difference. He died trying to make a difference."

Federal fire officials still study and learn from the tragedy on Storm King Mountain. Several hundred firefighters, friends and family of the fallen made their way to the summit and attended memorial events and picnics to mark the 20 year remembrance. Because of the lessons learned and observance of those lessons, the commemorative events were safely executed. Not a single injury occurred despite the senior ages of some of the family members.

The success of the 20-year memorial event is a testimony to communications across agencies and collaboration. Observing the lessons learned gives meaning to the catastrophic loss. In the end, acting on those lessons is perhaps the most respectful way to honor those who died in the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain. We will never forget.

By Chris Joyner, public affairs specialist, BLM Colorado

Reprinted from "The BLM Daily," July 9, 2014. 

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