The tragedy in Yarnell, Ariz., in which 19 hotshot firefighters were killed in a wildfire, brought back some traumatic memories of the hot summer of 1994 in Colorado. On July 6, fourteen young firefighters lost their lives near Glenwood Springs in the Storm King fire, formally named the South Canyon fire. There were immediate impacts and some long term ones. The tragedy of Storm King is so similar to Yarnell’s, it gives me chills.
I did not witness the Storm King fire, but I was close to another wildfire that had erupted the same week a hundred miles away in southwestern Colorado that had consequences as well. Firefighters in the Storm King fire, like the ones in Yarnell, tried to escape a fast moving blaze by hunkering down in their protective blankets. Inquiries and new procedures followed Storm King. Those same new procedures should have saved the Yarnell victims, but something went terribly wrong. Federal and state investigators have already announced they will spend time to discover what happened and whether any procedures could be changed to avoid another tragedy like Yarnell.
The Storm King fire’s long-term impact was procedural and tactical. There was an immediate impact, too, that changed the strategy to battle the other wildfire. On July 3, wildfire broke out which nearly entered the town of Durango and gave me an eye opening dose of wildfire savvy. Among lessons learned was that human power was puny next to Mother Nature’s rage.
Lightening struck the south side of a ridge 15 miles west of Durango on July 3. Stiff winds from the west, 100-degree temperature and bone dry juniper and scrub oak converged to create a flaming holocaust of a crown fire. In one day the fire blew 10 miles east, nearly to the Animas River. Had the wind shifted, coming from the south instead, it could have jumped the ridge and taken out a large subdivision to the north and continued across U.S. 160 to our daughter’s home in Durango West where I was, by chance, visiting.
The Black Ridge Fire, as it was named, burned mostly on Southern Ute Reservation land, but the wind blew steadily toward Durango for nearly a week. Parts of Durango were evacuated and Durango West was put on alert to prepare to evacuate. During mornings when the winds were calmer, tankers and helicopters dumped retardant and water. In the heat of the afternoons, fire and smoke created a horrifyingly awesome storm over the ridge.
With the Storm King fire fresh in fire commanders’ minds, nearly 1,000 firefighters were dispatched to dig fire lines mostly night when the fire laid down. Fortunately, only a few structures were in the fire’s path so long as the fire was contained to the southern outskirts of Durango and on the south side of the ridge. After six days of crossing our fingers and avoiding a smoke-choked Durango, the 17,000 acre wildfire was declared under control. The worst was over, and we were safe.
Since then, the Utes have built a firebreak to prevent any future fires from crossing over the ridge to the canyon and the subdivisions as part of the national fire plan.
That same year we were also building our home in Winter Park on the edge of a mountain ridge , which explains why our home is clad in stucco and brick, not in the shingles we had planned.
The Front Range fires last summer, the Black Forest fire last month, and the Yarnell tragedy have rekindled emotions I felt those 19 years ago, and I pray for the victims and the firefighters every time I watch the news reports.