Storm King Mountain: 20 Years Later
|Part 1: The Tragedy||Part 2: The Survivors||Part 3: The Legacy and Lessons|
By Dylan J. Darling
Courtesy Bowman Museum
The Prineville Hotshots visited Crater Lake National Park on a day off from firefighting on July 4, 1994 — just two days before nine of them would be among 14 firefighters to perish in the South Canyon Fire.
After losing nine friends and co-workers to a wildfire on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain in summer 1994, the remaining 11 Prineville Hotshots faced a difficult choice — return to work or quit fighting fires.
Their bosses said they would give them all the time they needed to make the choice. Alex Robertson, who ran a chain saw in the crew, chose to return to the fire line that same summer, as did the majority of his fellow hotshots.
"I didn’t have anything else to do," said Robertson, 43, now deputy fire staff officer for Central Oregon Fire Management Services, which coordinates firefighting on the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests, the Crooked River National Grassland, and Prineville District of the Bureau of Land Management. "It’s the middle of July, fire season. So I came back."
Initially all but one of the 11 surviving hotshots returned to being a firefighter, Robertson said. Over time many of them went on to different jobs.
Kim (Valentine) Lightley, 43, another of the Prineville Hotshots in 1994, was the one who decided right away to stop fighting fires. She was one of five women on the crew and the only one who survived, leaving her wondering why she made it through the fire and they didn’t. She now lives in Powell Butte and works as a research chemist, but travels the country to give talks to firefighters and their families about coping with the stress of traumatic experiences.
"I’ve had 20 years to think about that decision (to leave firefighting)," she told a room full of fire officials and firefighters in Prineville this spring.
In an article for Two More Chains, a quarterly newsletter for firefighters put out by the federal Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, she explained why she decided not to return to the hotshot crew.
"I was in a lot of grief at that time. It was terribly painful. To have something like this happen pretty much stabbed me in the heart. So I decided not to return that summer," she said.
The blowup of the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Colorado on July 6, 1994, killed 14 firefighters — nine Prineville Hotshots and five other firefighters. Firefighters earn the title hotshot when they’ve proved themselves as some of the best of the best — the crews are the elite of the wildland firefighting world.
Shocked by the loss of nearly half the 20-person Prineville Hotshots crew, fire officials at the Ochoco National Forest initially decided to have the entire firefighting force take a break immediately following the South Canyon Fire.
"The whole forest was grieving, simultaneous," Kevin Donham, a former fire management officer with the Ochoco National Forest said at the same gathering as Lightley’s talk.
Fire crews from the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon Department of Forestry and the Jefferson County Fire Department all offered to respond to fires on the Ochoco during the "stand-down," as Donham called it.
Alex Robertson is one of 11 surviving members of the Prineville Hotshots who were at the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain.
Ryan Brennecke / The Bulletin
"I think people needed some time to absorb what had happened," said Patrick Lair, spokesman for the Ochoco National Forest.
But about a week after the fire the Ochoco returned its fire crews to duty. The Prineville Hotshots eventually returned to work and joined with the 20-person Redmond Hotshots for the rest of the fire season, working as a 30-person crew. Officials combined the two crews in part because of the depleted numbers of the Prineville Hotshots and in part to keep them away from curious media.
Robertson said he came back to work around July 15, 1994, after having gone to eight of the nine funerals around Oregon for his co-workers. The last funeral was held later.
The fallen hotshots were much more than just co-workers.
Lightley called them "beloved brothers and sisters," in the newsletter article.
A hotshot fire crew is like a family, Robertson said. During fire season the job consumes a firefighter’s life, with work and downtime spent with fellow crew members.
"You are always together," he said.
Being a hotshot can also become part of a person’s identity outside the fire season.
"I was one of the geeks at college who wore her (firefighting) boots in the winter because I didn’t want my calluses to go away," Lightley said.
After leaving the Prineville Hotshots, Lightley stayed with the U.S. Forest Service for summer 1994.
First she was on a fish survey crew, she wrote in the article. She had a biology degree so the district managers thought it might be a good fit. It wasn’t.
"So they put me on this crew and we would go out and shock fish," Lightley wrote in the article. "... And they wouldn’t come back to life. There was a lot of death going on. So I didn’t last too long on the fish crew."
Next she was stationed at a fire lookout. Earlier in her career she’d enjoyed "relief" stints, or temporary assignments at lookouts. This also backfired.
"I took my dog with me," she said in the article. "We sat up on that butte for two months. There was a lot of isolation. I went hours and days without speaking to people. No human interaction happened. Looking back now, that may have been the catalyst to my (post-traumatic stress disorder)."
Over the year following the South Canyon Fire, Lightley wrote in the newsletter article, she had an ongoing compulsion to visit the graves of her fellow hotshots.
"That’s where I could let down my guard and sob," she said. "I was carrying around a fake smile — so folks didn’t know I was in so much pain. I had a lot of survivor’s guilt. I believed 100 percent that I should have died on that mountain with my friends."
The Prineville Hotshots logo today, with nine stars representing the nine hotshots killed in the South Canyon Fire.
Courtesy Ochoco National Forest
Along with the bond they share with one another, hotshots often feel a bond with their tool, Robertson said. Some of the tools are unique to the work and have names like Pulaski, an ax with a digging blade on the back of the head. Others are familiar tools, particularly chain saws.
The tools are what make a firefighter valuable as a member of the team. Throughout the season firefighters are tasked with the care of their tool. They’ll sharpen them, smooth out the handle — make the tool theirs.
Some firefighters even give their tools names. Robertson called his chain saw the "Screaming Banshee," and etched the nickname on the side of it for easy identification.
In the chaos of the South Canyon Fire blowup on Storm King Mountain, Robertson ditched the saw, tossing it onto a pile of other chain saws. As he fled from the surge of flames, the saws exploded. He spent 13 years on a hotshot crew and it’s the only time he ever left a tool behind.
Following the South Canyon Fire, officials at the Ochoco National Forest considered not having the stand-down, debated disbanding the hotshots and having them put their tools away for good. They were concerned the name "Prineville Hotshots" would carry with it too much pain. Ultimately, they decided to keep the name and the crew and not to let tragedy end the tradition of the unit that started in 1980.
The Prineville Hotshots symbol — seen on the side of their helmets, on crew shirts and on the back of their transport truck — today centers around the image of a coyote jumping over a flame. Over it there are now nine stars, each representing one of the firefighters who died in the South Canyon Fire. The crew also still wears blue helmets as they did on the South Canyon Fire.
In 1994 Eric Miller was just starting his career as a firefighter, working on a private company’s engine crew out of Bend. Now he’s the superintendent for the Prineville Hotshots, having taken the post only weeks ago.
Like many hotshots around the country, Miller has visited Storm King Mountain and walked the trail.
The granite cross on Storm King Moutain marking where Tami Bickett died on July 6, 1994, in the South Canyon Fire.
Courtesy Dale Shrull / Grand Junction Daily Sentinel
"You don’t think that something like this can happen to what everybody considers the most prepared, the most highly trained ... the elite firefighters," he said.
Robertson, one of the survivors of the South Canyon Fire, has been back to Storm King Mountain almost 20 times, the first time in fall 1994. He now goes each May as part of a training led by the Redding Hotshots out of Northern California. People ask him whether it’s hard to go back.
His reply may surprise them.
"It’s my best week of the year, to be on that hill, to be on that ground," he said. When he’s there he’s with 80 or so people, to learn from the fatal fire.
He and Lightley plan to be there Sunday, along with many of the other survivors and friends and family of the fallen, as part of a 20th anniversary event commemorating the South Canyon Fire.
Robertson said he plans to bring his wife and two boys, ages 10 and 12. They’ve been there before, but this will likely be the first year they understand what their dad lived through. He wants to make sure his kids know that although he still fights fire, he’s now working with management teams at a fire camp — a phone his main tool.
"I’m not the guy on the hill digging line and running a chain saw anymore," Robertson said.
Lightley said it took her 17 years before she revisited Storm King Mountain.
But she hasn’t walked down the east-side drainage where she, Robertson and others fled from the fire and to safety. She plans on going down it this time.
"It’s kind of my own need to get down that east drainage again," she said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7812, firstname.lastname@example.org