‘Firefighting changed drastically after Storm King’
The Associated Press file photo
On July 9, 1994, Jerry McDonald, left, a safety officer for the U.S. Forest Service from the Stanislaus National Forest, looks over the burned scrub on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. McDonald was giving a tour to then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy, right, of the mountain where 14 firefighters died July 6 while battling a blaze.
By Dylan J. Darling
Learning from the deaths of 14 firefighters 20 years ago in the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain, wildland firefighters are now more willing to speak up if they are uneasy about a fire.
"Firefighting changed drastically after Storm King," said John Maclean, author of the 1999 book "Fire on the Mountain: the True Story of the South Canyon Fire." "I think the biggest change is something that isn’t mentioned in any of the reports. … It’s a greater willingness on the part of firefighters to speak up when they think that they are in an overly dangerous situation."
The blowup of the South Canyon Fire in Colorado on July 6, 1994, killed nine members of the 20-person Prineville Hotshots and five other firefighters. After the fire, some of the survivors revealed they didn’t feel safe with their mission that day — digging a fireline downhill, attempting to corral a fire they couldn’t see because of the terrain.
Maclean isn’t the only one to start his list of changes brought by the South Canyon Fire with firefighters being upfront if they are leery of a situation. Fire crews follow military chains of command, and before the South Canyon Fire, firefighters were reluctant to question orders. Eric Miller, the new superintendent for the Prineville Hotshots, said it is one of the main lessons of the South Canyon Fire.
"There was a lot of people that were uncomfortable with what was going on, the conditions," he said. "Nothing felt right. Nobody spoke up."
The South Canyon Fire also brought changes to how federal firefighters ensure weather reports make it to fire crews in the field, improvements to their fire shelters and new trainings focused on safety. Firefighters now go through a checklist before digging fireline down a slope that is above where a fire is burning and do so only when there is no other alternative.
While the safety of firefighters has always been the most important thing for fire managers, Bill Aney, east-side forest restoration coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon and Washington, said the deaths on Storm King "made it real for people."
"...If we don’t pay attention to the basics, people can die," said Aney, who was an information officer for the Forest Service on the South Canyon Fire following the fatalities. "And here’s an example. And we are not talking about a crew of inexperienced people, first- or second-year people. We are talking about the best. We are talking about smokejumpers and hotshots crews and helitack people who had years and years of experience."
Despite the lessons of the South Canyon Fire, wildland firefighters still die on fires. Last year 19 members, all but one, of the 20-person Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Arizona, died on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. There, a blowup similar to the one on Storm King caught the crew members as they tried to make it to a safety zone. Along with the weather, Maclean said communication issues during the fire were eerily similar to Storm King.
"Communications are very much a work in progress," he said.
As in the South Canyon Fire, Maclean said it wasn’t clear who was in charge at the Yarnell fire. Both fires were small but growing and eventually were taken over by larger management teams.
Here in Central Oregon, John Hammack, a contract sawyer with the Deschutes National Forest, died Aug. 1 on a fire near Sisters. A falling tree hit Hammack, an experienced logger. He was among 34 firefighters nationwide to die on wildfires last year, according to statistics kept by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
The deaths underscore the dangers of the job and the continued need to improve training and work practices to increase safety.
"There is a risk every time you fight a fire," Aney said.