I was the Fire Information Officer on duty on July 6, 1994 when 14 firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. At that time, I was working for the Bureau of Land Management, and I was providing information on over 100 fires on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, some of which had already burned homes and thousands of acres. My day had begun at 7:30 a.m. At about 4:45 I got the call that the 50-acre, slow-growing South Canyon Fire had blown up and there were fatalities. I felt like someone had hit me hard in the stomach, and for three days after I couldn’t draw a full breath. I’ve had that same feeling every July 6th since then, at about 3:30 pm, the time that the firefighters were over run by flames.
That day I had a partial list of the crews working the fire, and it included co-workers and friends. But in order to do my job, I had to put my fears aside, and begin the task of sorting out truth from rumor and relaying that on. The phone rang all night long from local and national press and from as far away as London. Every time I placed the phone back in the cradle it would ring again with someone new calling. At about 1:00 a.m. I began getting calls from firefighters’ families all across the country, trying to find out where their loved ones might be. I didn’t know which firefighters had died, only which crews were fighting the fire, so I was able to allay fears. One grandfather called looking for his grand daughter. I could hear the joy in his voice when I told him she was safe, and then suddenly he was sobbing over the phone. “That’s very good for me,” he said. “But very bad for someone else.” People called in to volunteer goods and services because they had a house in the area, or a house like the ones being saved, or had met a firefighter once, or simply because they were a father, a mother, a brother or a sister and they could each imagine what it would be like to lose someone they loved. Over the next three days, I only left the fire information trailer for a total of about 10 hours. Inside that metal box, I consoled weeping fire managers, assuring them they were not at fault. I helped coordinate search and rescue teams when some of the fallen couldn’t be found. I finally left the trailer for good on the day I had to tell my friends that someone they loved had been found dead, unable to escape the flames.
For a year after the fire I worked with the community and the families and friends of the fallen firefighters to create a memorial trail and a statue in the park. Working with Shawn Lawler, I created the interpretive signs for the trail. I worked with the families to write the biographies of their loved ones that stand at the trailhead and that surround the memorial statue. I coordinated volunteers to install the signs, and then I worked with the community to create an anniversary memorial event. It was the hardest year of my life. In the end I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I spent time in therapy learning the tools to help me recover.
Now 19 years later, 19 more firefighters have died in eerily similar circumstances and it has caused me to reflect again on how we think of fire, and how it enters our landscape, and how we fight it. The firefighters we deploy are hard working and well-trained. They are driven by a love of the outdoors, and a desire to help us all protect homes, property and natural resources. Most importantly, the firefighters I’ve met are good people who add a lot to their communities. When they die fighting fires, it is an incredible loss. Having walked with a community through this loss, I wonder why we continue to put the fragile human bodies of young loved ones directly in the line of enormous raging fires. With the fantastic technologies we have developed can we come up with something that does not risk such tragedy?
Several years after the South Canyon fire, I was working on a potential way to slow and stop fires and give firefighters safe zones to retreat to or fight from. I ran a 7-year research project using goats to create firebreaks. What I learned is that this is a tool for slowing fires and for stopping them in some circumstances. The hoof action also seems to provide more stopping power than when hand crews clear firebreaks, as shown in the picture to the right. But in 2010, in the face of extreme winds and high temperatures, even 100 foot goat-created firebreaks could not stop a raging fire.
Last year, my 78-year old parents were under evacuation alert because of a wildland fire approaching their home in the city of Boulder, Colorado. I jumped in my truck and drove the hour to their house so that I could help them load up valuables if evacuation was necessary. We watched as planes dropped retardant on the flames and breathed a little easier when the wind changed direction and turned the fire back on itself. As night fell, city fire trucks from neighboring towns drove into Boulder, and one headed up the cul de sac where my folks live. Their job, they said, was to clear a line. Instead, I pointed them to the hydrants that the city had installed all along the greenbelt in preparation for just such a day, and they gratefully hauled their hoses up to sit and wait to see if they were needed. As they settled in I told them to be safe, and reminded them that their lives were worth so much more than anyone’s house and stuff.
My personal belief is that no one should die trying to protect homes and property from a fire. I’ve seen first hand what happens to the lives of loved ones, and to communities when firefighters die, and the cost is too high. It is this belief, and the experiences I noted above that lead to my questions.
– Are 20-person hand crews, with chainsaws and pulaskis invented in 1911, the right tools for fighting fires that rage across tens and hundreds and even thousands of acres?
– We have modeling tools that can predict fire behavior under a wide variety of conditions, including the increasingly extreme fire conditions we face, particularly in the west. Can we better use those tools to ensure we don’t put fire crews in danger?
– Are we preparing for and fighting fire in the best, safest way we can using the best technology we have?
I am not an expert on fire. I’m simply someone who has questions. I think they are questions we should all begin to ask as fires become a more and more difficult force to be reckoned with. How can we best use our time, money and resources to make everyone as safe as they can be? Perhaps it’s time to reframe how we look at combatting fire.