Storm King Mountain: 20 Years Later

Part 1: The Tragedy Part 2: The Survivors Part 3: The Legacy and Lessons

‘Get out of there’

Deadly in minutes: 14 firefighters — including 9 Prineville Hotshots — could not escape when a change in weather turned a modest Colorado wildfire into a fast-moving inferno

By Dylan J. Darling

The Bulletin

Twenty years ago an elite group of firefighters from Prineville went to Colorado to fight just one of many wildfires burning on the western slope of the Rockies. Four hours later, nine of those firefighters were dead.

The blaze had erupted into a firestorm, killing more than a dozen firefighters in all, scarring the small Central Oregon town and leading to changes in how wildfires are fought.

The South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado on July 6, 1994, trapped and killed the Prineville nine, along with three smokejumpers and two members of a helicopter firefighting crew. The death toll was the largest in modern wildland firefighting history until a similar blowup killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona a little more than a year ago.

Hotshot crews typically have 20 members. Training, living and working together, the firefighters become a family. This was true with the Prineville Hotshots. The group killed ranged in age from 21 to 28, hailed from around Oregon and included some unique characters. Levi Brinkley was the firstborn of a rambunctious set of triplet brothers who made themselves locally famous in Burns. Bonnie Holtby ran cross country and track and played hoops at Redmond High before turning her athletic skills to firefighting. Jon Kelso was born and raised in Prineville.

He turned down a scholarship offer to be the Oregon State University football manager because he wanted to fight wildfires instead.

Brinkley, Holtby, Kelso and the 17 other Prineville Hotshots joined a collection of about 50 firefighters from around the West to take on the South Canyon Fire, which had been burning for four days when they arrived on July 6, 1994. A dramatic change in weather later that day caused the fire to switch directions, grow rapidly and turn deadly.

Twenty Prineville Hotshots deploy at the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain on July 6, 1994.

Courtesy Bowman Museum

Two decades haven’t dampened the loss felt by the 11 Hotshots who survived the fire, the families who lost members and the fraternity of wildland firefighters. A gathering is planned Sunday on Storm King, where a trail now gives visitors a sample of the steep terrain encountered by firefighters during the fire, and granite markers show where they fell.

After the fire, federal investigators scoured the mountain and conducted 70 interviews with witnesses, building a description of how and why the fire turned fatal. Their report and other reviews of the South Canyon Fire brought changes to how wildfires are fought. There is also now a greater acceptance of firefighters speaking up about dangerous conditions.

"We look at risk differently (now)," said Carol Benkosky, district manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Prineville. "… We look at our tactics differently."

The blowup

Explaining how the South Canyon Fire went from a mundane, small wildfire early in the afternoon of July 6, 1994, to a hard-charging, fatal firestorm just hours later is a complex tale. A 250-page report in 1994, an 85-page report in 1998, a 304-page book by John Maclean in 1999 and an 82-minute video this year all chronicle the combination of weather, fire behavior and firefighter location that led to the deaths of 14 people.

By the time fire crews snuffed out the South Canyon Fire on July 11, 1994, it had burned a total of 2,115 acres, most on the day of the blowup. Lighting started the blaze 7 miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on July 2, 1994, and for most of its first four days it stayed small. The morning of the blowup firefighters estimated its size at 29 acres.

People living along Interstate 70 near 8,793-foot Storm King Mountain reported seeing smoke from the fire on July 3, 1994. They include a man who called from South Canyon, across the freeway and the Colorado River from Storm King, prompting dispatchers to give the fire its name.

The lone helicopter on the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, shown here before the blowup on July 6, 1994, shuttled the Prineville Hotshots from Canyon Creek Estates to the fire, and dropped water on the fire using a large bucket.

Courtesy Bowman Museum

The fire came during a time of drought, low humidity and high temperatures. And it wasn’t the only fire going: on June 30 and July 1, 1994, thunderstorms sparked 40 other fires on the Bureau of Land Management’s Grand Junction District, which manages the land where the South Canyon Fire started.

A cold front moved over Storm King Mountain on the afternoon of July 6, 1994, pushing strong winds up the canyons surrounding the peak. The winds quickly spread fire uphill, through the tops of Gambel oaks. Earlier the fire had burned through the underbrush below the trees, drying them out and priming them to burn.

What happened is called a blowup, "a rapid transition from a surface fire exhibiting relatively low intensity, to a fire burning in the whole vegetation complex, surface to canopy, and demonstrating dramatically larger flame heights, higher energy release rates, and faster rates of spread," according to the 1998 U.S. Forest Service report "Fire Behavior Associated with the 1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, Colorado."

While a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Junction issued a forecast about the cold front and warned of the effect it could have on wildfires, the word didn’t make it to all the fire crews fighting the South Canyon Fire.

The Prineville Hotshots had been fighting a wildfire near Chiloquin before being called to Colorado. They got the Fourth of July off and went to nearby Crater Lake National Park to enjoy the holiday.

"Everybody was happy, cheerful, looking forward to a great fire season," Tom Shepard, the Hotshots’ supervisor, said in the in the video released by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "The following morning, on the fifth, we got the word, ‘OK, we’re going to Colorado.’"

They flew into Grand Junction, Colorado, and once they arrived, there were hitches as they prepared to fight the fire. There weren’t buses to pick them up at the airport, officials weren’t sure which fire to send them to and there were problems with meals, Bryan Scholz, the Hotshots’ crew foreman in 1994, said in the video.

"There was just some little confusion," he said. "It was kind of obvious that things were a little unsettled (in Colorado)."

The morning of July 6, 1994, the Hotshots awoke and found a bus with their squad name and "Glenwood Springs South Canyon" on it. They were headed to the South Canyon Fire. But first they needed to find some hand tools. The bus took them to the BLM office in Glenwood Springs, more than 80 miles east of Grand Junction.

"They weren’t expecting us, didn’t quite know what to do with us," Scholz said in the video. "Didn’t have any tools. We had to scrounge around, break into the (Colorado River fire crew) guys’ lockers to get some fire tools."

They went to grab lunch in town, but were turned around halfway there and told to head to the fire. The bus took them to Canyon Creek Estates, a subdivision west of the fire off Interstate 70. They arrived at noon.

"You could see the fire just laying there," Shepard said in the video. "Not real active, pretty calm, pretty innocent."

By 3:45 p.m. that day the Prineville Hotshots were all on Storm King Mountain, separated into two main groups. Nine of them who caught the first two helicopter rides from the nearby South Canyon Estates to the fire had joined up with smokejumpers and were digging a fire line down the west flank of the mountain. Ten other Hotshots from the crew were higher up on Storm King, having caught two later helicopter rides up to the fire. They were building a fire line between two helicopter landing spots along a ridge. Shepard, the head of the Hotshots, was further up the ridge at a place where he could keep watch on the two teams.

Focused on stopping the fire’s progress, the team building the west flank fire line departed from normal practices, Scholz said in the video. Normally firefighters make sure they have a "safety zone," or a spot close by to escape the fire should it shift direction. But as they dug down the hillside they moved farther and farther away from their safety zone. They were also moving deeper into vegetation ready to burn.

"What this fire had done was it had backed down through all of this brush on this hillside and the canopy of the brush was still intact, and in effect everyone on the fire had unburned fuel between the fire and where they were," Scholz said.

Winds atop the main ridge increased, reaching 45 miles per hour. Down where the firefighters were digging a line in the canyon the winds didn’t seem as strong. That would change quickly.

"I don’t think anybody on that fire was unaware of the potential that could happen," Michael Cooper, a McCall, Idaho, smokejumper who was fighting the fire, said in the video. "… (What) took us by surprise is how quick the change came. It was almost like a switch was flipped."

A small fire started by burning debris from the main fire popped up in the drainage below the firefighters. It grew fast and burned toward them. The Prineville Hotshots and the smokejumpers working the downhill line began an uphill retreat.

Someone radioed to dispatch shortly after 4 p.m., asking for an air tanker to drop retardant ahead of the spot fire. "We have a real bad situation here," the firefighter said, according to the 1998 report.

The fire exploded too fast for such air support to help stop it.

Shepard gave a simple order to both teams of firefighters, according to the report: "Get out of there."

Kelso, a Prineville Hotshot in the lower crew who was killed in the fire responded, "We are on our way."

Scholz, with the upper crew, said, "Things are getting complicated."

Those in the upper crew, working between helicopter landing spots along the ridgeline, bolted for the safety of one of the landing pads as the fire charged toward them. They then headed off the mountain through a drainage on the opposite side.

Eric Hipke, a North Cascades smokejumper, was with the lower crew of Hotshots as they tried to escape.

"As we started getting farther along the line and we were able to glimpse over the 12-foot-tall brush and get some glances down into the canyon, I could see the fire was now marching its way towards us. And every little glimpse I got I couldn’t believe how much further the fire had advanced. It’s just hard to comprehend that it’s moving that fast. It’s like moving through gasoline."

Hipke and the others were in a race against the fire to the top of the ridge, a race many of them lost. He survived, but received third-degree burns as heat from the fire blasted him as he neared the ridge. Now with the National Interagency Fire Center, Hipke shot and produced the video about the fire.

A dozen of those who died, the nine Prineville Hotshots and three smokejumpers, were clustered near one another along the west flank fire line near the top of the ridge. Two others, both members of a helicopter crew, died in a gully about a half-mile away from the others. Search teams found their bodies two days later.

Courtesy Bowman Museum

Of the 14 firefighters killed on Storm King Mountain, nine were Prineville Hotshots with Oregon ties: Kathi Beck, 24; Hometown: Beaverton; A senior at the University of Oregon, Beck was a rock and mountain climber who hoped to one day open an outdoor youth therapy program. Jon Kelso, 27; Hometown: Prineville; Kelso played golf and managed the football team at Crook County High School. He had a wildlife science degree from OSU and was studying civil engineering at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls. Robert Johnson, 26; Hometown: Roseburg; Johnson graduated with honors from Oregon State University in 1991 with a business administration degree and passed his Certified Public Accounting exam on his first attempt. Bonnie Holtby, 21; Hometown: Redmond; Holtby, a third-generation firefighter, played basketball and competed in track and cross-country at Redmond High. Terri Hagen, 28; Hometown: Dallas; A member of the Onondaga tribe of the Iroquois Nation, Hagen had served in the Army as a medic and was completing degrees in entomology and history at Oregon State University. Doug Dunbar, 22; Hometown: McKenzie Bridge; An honor student at McKenzie High, Dunbar was also a baseball player and saxophonist. He was 15 credits short of a business degree from Southern Oregon State College when he died. Scott Blecha, 27; Hometown: Clatskanie; Blecha served four years in the U.S. Marines before graduating cum laude with a degree in mechanical engineering from the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls. Levi Brinkley, 22; Hometown: Burns; Brinkley was an outdoorsman who loved hunting, fishing and skiing as well as skydiving, rock climbing and bungee jumping. Tamara "Tami" Bickett, 24; Hometown: Lebanon; In her sixth year with the Hotshots, Bickett grew up an athlete, running cross-country and playing volleyball in high school.

For the firefighters who survived there were close calls, burns and fire shelter deployments, but they escaped the flames. The surviving Hotshots also made it through a harrowing scramble down a drainage on the other side of the ridge to Interstate 70.

The blowup itself lasted about 20 minutes. Just a couple of hours afterward, some of the survivors joined search and rescue efforts to find missing firefighters.

Tony Petrilli, a Missoula smokejumper who was fighting the fire, said in the video he radioed the helicopter pilot who was helping with the search once they found the cluster of a dozen fallen firefighters. The pilot asked whether they needed medical assistance.

"No, it’s too late for that," he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

National Interagency Fire Center film, Part 1

National Interagency Fire Center film, Part 2

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