CANYON CREEK — A quick rain had just washed through the South Canyon area west of Glenwood Springs at 8 a.m. Saturday, cooling the air and dampening the dust for the hike up to the memorials for 14 firefighters who died here 19 years ago, on July 6, 1994, fighting the Storm King Fire.
At the trailhead, about a mile east of the Canyon Creek exit off Interstate 70, a few dozen firefighters from the immediate region — Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Basalt, Aspen — and elsewhere were heading up in separate groups, some carrying on a tradition that was established when the trail was built by volunteers following the 1994 fire.
But many of the firefighters climbing the trail also were there to honor another tragedy, the Yarnell Hill fire near Phoenix, which on June 30 killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew from Prescott, Ariz.
“It was 19 years ago today,” mused Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine, who was helping to fight the Storm King Fire that year but was not at the scene when the fire, fanned by a sudden shift in the wind, suddenly blew up.
“We just thought it would be a good time to pay our respects to the firefighters who died in both fires,” Balentine continued.
Roughly 50 firefighters were battling the Storm King blaze on July 6, 1994. The fire had started several days earlier but had not been seriously tackled until July 5 because it was not deemed a hazard to homes or human lives.
The blaze flared and spread, however, and by July 6, 20 members of the elite Hotshot crew from Prineville, Oregon, were working the ground in South Canyon when the wind shifted and the fire suddenly blew up. The flames got below a group of fire fighters in the South Canyon drainage, and raced uphill toward them. The fire overtook and killed nine of the Hotshot firefighters from Prineville; three smokejumpers from Missoula, Montana and McCall, Idaho; and two Helitack operators.
The full story of the fire that killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots is still unknown, awaiting investigation by authorities.
But in the tightly knit community of wildland firefighters, the irony of the two fires killing so many of their brethren on dates so close to each other has spawned a flood of memories and emotions.
Matt Huber, a smokejumper for the McCall, Idaho crew that sent personnel to the Storm King fire in 1994, said he splits his year between firefighting in the summers and working for the Aspen Skiing Company in the winters, but this summer he is taking a break.
Though he was not at the Storm King Fire, Huber said the tragedies of the fire here and the one in Arizona have set up a painful resonance for him.
“How could you not feel some correlation between the two?” he asked rhetorically. “I think this fire brought all that [memories of Storm King] back to life again, the emotions. I think a lot of people are freaked out.”
Others from this area are feeling the resonance, as well.
“Some of us are going to Arizona on Monday for the service for the 19 who went down in Arizona,” said Basalt’s Deputy Fire Chief Brian Benton, who also noted that at a July 4 barbecue the Basalt department raised several thousand dollars to be given to the families of the deceased Arizona hotshots.
Although Benton was tagged by his fellow firefighters as the one who had put together this group hike, he denied it.
“A couple of us just decided to go walkin’ up here, you know,” he said.
Glenwood Springs Chief Battalion Chief Pete Bradshaw remarked that “A lot of times people, fire guys who drive through here, will stop and hike up here,” evidence that the trail is well-known throughout the fire fighting community.
Along for the hike was Colorado River Fire and Rescue Authority firefighter Addy Maratino of Rifle, with her 9-year-old son, Embrey, who got some good-natured ribbing from the adults around him about the likelihood of his following in his mother’s footsteps at some point.
“Maybe,” his mom said with a grin.
On the way up the trail, the talk touched upon many topics, including the fact that the smell of smoke still lingers in the ground and vegetation of the area even after 19 years, and the fact that a staggering amount of mementoes have been left at the upper memorial site, at the spots where the firefighters died.
Other groups of firefighters passed by, including students in the Colorado Mountain College fire academy out of Eagle, a couple of dozen from the Willowa-Whitman National Forest in northeastern Oregon, and the Tallahassee Volunteer Fire Protection department from Fremont County, Colorado.
Firefighter Barry Cole said the group had been staging out of a command center in Grand Junction and had just been released.
“It’s almost like we were supposed to come here,” said firefighter George Reichert of the Tallahassee volunteers.
The group was in the company of Glenwood Springs resident Patty Grace, who was living in Mitchell Creek when the Storm King fire broke out.
Now, she said, she still lives in Glenwood Springs, but “away from the trees.”