Lingering haze, the subtle smell of scorched earth, and the most breathtaking sunsets ever witnessed can only mean one thing; fire season is back and smacking down hard across our Colorado landscape. Sweeping her plains, scorching the slopes of her mountains day and night, the fires continue to burn. Right now as these laptop keys carry my thoughts forward, there are nine fires burning in Colorado.
The summer of 1994 was dry and hot, even in my mountain neighborhood where we stood tall at nearly 7000 feet above sea level. Living in our teeny-tiny mountain town meant a thirty-mile drive for essentials each week. Through the canyon, alongside the Colorado River, we would travel to the nearest “big” town of Glenwood Springs.
Lightening and drought are a lethal combination in the Colorado high country. Records show that thunder and lightning shook the mountain peaks and valleys thousands of times in the first two days of July igniting 40 fires on the western slope seemingly all at once. Firefighters were continuously deployed and resources were painfully scarce.
On the morning of July 3rd, the lightning continued and the South Canyon fire, later known as the Storm King Mountain fire just west of Glenwood, sprang to life. With red flag weather warnings and unrelenting high winds, it became clear to local Garfield County officials that additional resources in the name of slurry bombers, ground crews and smokejumpers were necessary. The very next day the resources came and along with them arrived an eager young Hotshot crew from Prineville, Oregon.
Smokejumpers are bad-asses and the Hotshots from Prineville were no exception. The Prineville crew were immediately assigned to begin building a fire line to stop the spread across one section of Storm King. Working for days they found themselves under continuing harsh and dangerous conditions. The morning of July 6th provided no relief as the fire continued to explode all around them, fed by the fuel pockets of brush and ground cover thriving along the mountainside. I was in Glenwood that day, and the fear and tension were palpable as community members exchanged looks of bewilderment. We knew things were serious, we had no idea what was yet to come.
The Prineville Hotshots were husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters with families of their own and hopes for the future. As is true with all first responders, they never hesitated, willingly putting their own lives on the line to save Colorado lives. We all know the outcome of that day. The raw, painful loss of fourteen firefighters bubbles to surface each year on the anniversary of Storm King as we remember, the grief continuing to pulse through us.
More than twenty years have passed and the earth has healed herself with travelers along I70 never knowing about the tragic circumstances of that summer. Please promise me that you will never forget the sacrifice and bravery on that day and together we will continue to pray for Colorado’s heroes, no matter where the danger or the season leads them.