Jon Kelso was many things — firefighter, lifeguard, smokejumper, late-night dune buggy racer — but a high school athlete he was not.
Husky as a child, according to his mother, Jon managed the football team for four years at Crook County High School in Prineville and was part of the Cowboys’ 1984 state championship run.
But, as his father Marv Kelso loves to tell, Jon was the only member of that Crook County squad to receive a (then) Pac-10 scholarship offer.
“After we won state, Jon goes off to Oregon State,” says Marv, a 74-year-old retired middle school teacher who still lives in Prineville with his wife Anita, also 74. “And he sets up an appointment to see what it takes to be a manager at Oregon State. An assistant coach did the interview, and he calls up (former Crook County coach Bob) Crofcheck, and Crofcheck says, ‘Get him if you can.’”
Jon was offered the job, which would have amounted to a full scholarship by his senior year.
“He didn’t do it, though,” says Marv, who lights up when recounting old stories from his youngest son’s youth. “When he found out he’d have to report the first of August, there (would have) went six weeks of firefighting.”
Jon Kelso and 13 other firefighters died 20 years ago today battling the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, about 160 miles west of Denver. Nine of those who perished, including Jon, were members of the Prineville Hotshots, one of the country’s elite wildland firefighting crews.
Two decades later, the Kelsos and other families are still struggling to make sense of one of the deadliest wildland fires in U.S. history.
Marv, who readily admits to wearing his heart on his sleeve, runs through a gamut of emotions when talking about Jon, who was 27 when he died. He laughs out loud when he retells the story about the old Volkswagen Bug Jon and some college buddies converted into a midnight beach cruiser, and he shakes with anger discussing the South Canyon Fire Investigation report that partially blamed the Hotshots’ “can-do attitude” for their deaths.
“There’s a hole in your heart and the only thing that will heal that up is death,” says Kenny Brinkley, 68, the father of Levi Brinkley, a 22-year-old hotshot from Burns who died on Storm King. “Early on, I had to talk about it (the South Canyon Fire). … If I was talking to somebody that didn’t want to listen, I’d go find somebody who would.”
Kathy Brinkley, Levi’s mother, grieved in a completely different manner from her husband.
“He couldn’t talk to me because I didn’t want to talk about it,” says Kathy, who along with Kenny still lives in the same house Levi and his three brothers grew up in just outside of Burns. “I’d get up and walk out of the room. I couldn’t stand to talk about it.”
In addition to Jon Kelso and Levi Brinkley, the following Hotshots were lost on Storm King: Kathi Beck, 24; Tami Bickett, 25; Scott Blecha, 27; Doug Dunbar, 22; Terri Hagen, 28; Bonnie Holtby, 21; and Rob Johnson, 26. Smokejumpers Don Mackey, 34; Roger Roth, 30; and Jim Thrash, 44, also died in the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994, as did helitack crewmen Robert Browning, Jr., 27, and Richard Tyler, 33.
Both Prineville and Glenwood Springs built memorials for the fallen firefighters, and the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping the families of firefighters killed in action, was created in Boise, Idaho. The Prineville Memorial Hotshot Run, an annual 10K and 5K fundraiser in May, was also set up to honor the fallen. Both the Brinkleys and the Kelsos helped build the Wildland Firefighters Memorial in Prineville, and the Brinkleys served on the board at the Boise nonprofit.
“We like going over there (to the Wildfire Firefighter Foundation) because you get to sit down and talk with new people,” says Kenny, who has a tattoo of a purple ribbon, the symbol for firefighters who have died in action, on his right forearm. Kathy has a set of hearts — one of which is purple — on her ankle. “I’ve had parents come up to me and say, ‘You’ve helped us so much,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What did I say?’ There are no magic words. Everyone grieves the same; they just go through different points.”
Levi, a triplet, was one of four brothers born within 13 months of one another. He graduated from Bend’s Central Oregon Community College not long before his death. An avid outdoorsman who loved to fish, hunt, ski and rock climb, Levi held a lifelong fascination with Colorado and had hoped to eventually move there.
“People don’t really believe this, but before Levi died, he called us,” Kathy says. “It was the last time we talked to him. He’d been in California fighting fire and hated it because he always got poison oak.”
“Well,” Levi said, according to Kathy, “I’ve been to hell and I’m on my way to heaven.”
Marv and Anita Kelso, who both retired soon after Jon’s death, initially threw themselves into the Prineville memorial and their church. When their granddaughters, Jon’s nieces, got older and began playing sports, they became their biggest fans.
“That was good for us,” says Marv about getting out and cheering on their grandchildren. “We went to an awful lot of basketball and softball and volleyball and golf over the years. That got us back into the public where we saw lots and lots of people. That was a healing process for us.”
The Kelsos are not regular visitors of the Wildland Firefighters Foundation in Boise — “I prefer not to go back and relive it over and over again,” Marv says — and they did not go back to Colorado this week like the Brinkleys for the 20th anniversary of the fire. The longtime Prineville couple instead has an intensely personal place in the Ochoco Mountains where they go to remember their son.
“When Jon’s brother Greg got back from the service, he was duded up as a cowboy and had this black Stetson (cowboy hat),” Anita recalls, laughing at the memory. “Jon and his friend Scott, they were both very immature at the time, not the kind of guys girls come after, but boy, Greg was just the opposite. Well, Jon and Scott decided they needed cowboy boots and a Stetson, too.”
Jon, who graduated from Oregon State University with a wildlife science degree and was going back to school at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls for a civil engineering degree before he died, eventually matured and grew into the black Stetson.
“When he died, Marv took his Stetson up to a tree where we scattered his ashes in the Ochocos,” Anita says, “and that hat’s still there.”
“I usually go up there in the spring as soon as I can,” Marv adds, “and when Greg and I elk hunt, we always make sure we do a turn or two out there every season.”
While the families of the nine Prineville Hotshots who lost their lives 20 years ago are scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest, the group still stays in touch through email and Facebook, and many parents gather each year for the memorial run in Prineville.
“It’s kind of like those friends you don’t see for three or four years, but it’s like you were never gone,” Marv says, explaining the kinship he has with the other parents who lost their kids on Storm King. “It’s that way with this group.”
“It just doesn’t seem possible it’s been 20 years,” Anita admits. “Deep down, I’m still bothered by it more than I realized.”
“But,” her husband adds, “we know where he’s at.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org