Published Jul 6, 2014 at 12:01AM / Updated Jul 10, 2014 at 02:21PM

Storm King Mountain: 20 Years Later

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

Scars and lessons

In the aftermath: The South Canyon Fire killed 14 experienced firefighters; ever since, families have endeavored to cope...

By Beau Eastes

The Bulletin

Andy Tullis / The Bulletin

Kathy and Kenny Brinkley hold the high school graduation picture of their son, Levi, who died in the Storm King tragedy, at their home in Burns on June 27. "There’s a hole in your heart," Kenny Brinkley says.

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.

Kathy Brinkley painted her toenails blue for the color of Prineville and purple ribbons on her big toes in memory of her fallen son, Levi, who died in the Storm King tragedy 20 years ago.

Andy Tullis / The Bulletin

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."

Kathy Brinkley points toward a picture of Levi.

Andy Tullis / The Bulletin

"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, beastes@bendbulletin.com

...and officials have worked to prevent similar tragedies

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

The Bulletin

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.

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

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