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A Times-News team of four has spent the past six months talking with key fire officials, victims, survivors, scientists, psychologists, investigators and others to unveil the policies and methods behind wildfire battles, the incalcuable cost to victims’ loved ones in Idaho and elsewhere, what changes have been made to ameliorate the increasing dangers, and which improvements still need to be implemented.

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20 Years After the South Canyon Fire

By Billie Stanton
bstanton@magicvalley.com

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. • Flames crackling mere millimeters behind him, Eric Hipke clambered up the last steep stretch of a rugged mountainside engulfed by roiling fire.

Hipke was panting hard when he screamed and hurled himself over the ridge.

He made it with five seconds to spare, investigators concluded later.

The blaze seared the backs of Hipke’s neck, arms, legs and the hands cupped over his ears.

The worst agony, though, was learning that 14 fellow firefighters perished behind him on Storm King Mountain that July 6, 1994, in Colorado’s South Canyon Fire.

Nearly 20 years later, Hipke’s burns have healed. His sorrow, however, persists.

Wildfire deaths of this magnitude had not occurred for 45 years, not since Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire killed 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger on Aug. 5, 1949.

The Colorado catastrophe signaled the need for critical changes, and many have been made.

The mountain today is studded with marble crosses, each laden with personal mementos, on the spots where the four women and 10 men died.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Ariz., made the pilgrimage there two years ago to pay their respects, recalled Darrell Willis, wildland division chief for the Prescott Fire Department.

“We hiked Storm King Mountain with this (20-member hotshot) crew, and we all said, ‘This will never happen to us.’”

All but one of those hotshots died June 30 during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, where shifting winds, canyon topography and an apparent lack of situational awareness eerily echoed the South Canyon tragedy.

The 19 deaths in Arizona shocked firefighters and civilians alike. They occurred 19 years after South Canyon.

“I never thought we’d wipe out a whole crew,” said Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on the Payette National Forest.

Firefighters Who Died on Storm King Mountain, July 6, 1994

In all, 34 people — including one in Idaho — died this year while fighting wildfires, the worst count in almost 20 years. (Idaho smokejumper Mark Urban died, too, when his parachute failed to open during a training exercise.)

Despite all the refinements to wildfire fighting, the death toll is up.

Two factors are spiking the dangers exponentially:

• Climate change is producing abundant lightning storms and severe droughts resulting in sere landscapes of dried cheatgrass, brush, beetle-killed trees and other highly flammable fuels. Fire seasons now last up to 10 months rather than five or six.

ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Josh Brinkley looks at the memorial for McCall Smokejumper Jim Thrash on Sept. 26, 2013. Click for full gallery

“I was seeing fire behavior this year that I hadn’t seen in a while,” Josh Brinkley said in September while standing on Storm King Mountain, where his brother Levi was killed. “Everything was so dry.

“The PIG (probability of ignition) in a normal year is 80 percent. This year, as early as 9 a.m., it was 100 percent all season long. I talked to old-timers who had never seen it that dry for years,” said Josh, a Twin Falls-based supervisory wildland fire operations specialist with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

• Simultaneously, more and more homes are being erected in the urban-wildland interface — most without fire-retardant materials much less any fire-defensible space.

The trend underscores a lack of responsibility by local governments and property owners, said Larry Edwards, a 1970s hotshot in California, Oregon and New Mexico who landed in Helena, Mont., in 1989 as a superintendent and retired in 2004.

“Personal rights come with responsibilities. In Australia, homes are built to be defensible. They don’t put firefighters in there to save homes,” Edwards said. “They understand that they’re living with wildfire, and we don’t have that understanding here.”

While none of this bodes well for people fighting wildfires, some deaths may be inevitable in a volatile environment where Mother Nature rules in random fashion, fire managers acknowledge.

“You can’t apply an OSHA model to what we do. It’s not a factory floor,” said Jim Cook, who recently retired after 37 years in fire service, including 18 years as a hotshot crew superintendent and 14 years as training projects coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise.

Still, with dozens killed in one year and global warming and wilderness construction ramping up, Cook and fire colleagues across the West know something must be done.

Human Factors

Gallery: 20-year Aftermath of the South Canyon Fire

Experts interviewed over the past six months cited one primary key to wildfire deaths: human factors.

Psychologist Ted Putnam, Ph.D., is the “father of human factors,” said Hipke, who makes safety training videos in Boise for the Wildfire Safety Training Annual Renewal.

Putnam was on the investigative review team for the South Canyon Fire but refused to sign the official report because he found it inaccurate and incomplete, ignoring too many pertinent human factors.

“I think it was honorable that Ted Putnam didn’t sign that report. I don’t think it told the whole story,” said Joe Brinkley, manager of the McCall Smokejumper Base, brother of Josh Brinkley and a triplet brother of Levi, who died in the fire.

“God bless (Putnam),” said John MacLean, author of “Fire on the Mountain” and three other non-fiction books on wildfires. “He’s done a great, great service on human factors.”

Putnam joined the U.S. Forest Service in 1963 and was a smokejumper from 1966-76, with three years as a squad leader.

On July 17, 1976, he fought the Battlement Creek Fire, which killed three men — from Idaho, Arizona and Wisconsin — about 40 miles west of Storm King Mountain. A fourth man survived; he had lain face-down, and the fire passed over him.

Putnam warned other bosses 15 minutes and again three minutes before the fire roared up the hill. One victim’s clothes were undamaged, another’s were burnt off, and the third victim and the survivor’s clothes were burned across the back only.

The discrepancies intrigued Putnam, who moved to the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) at once to help research and design better protective fire gear. He studied statistics and mathematics for six years while working on his doctorate in research psychology.

A workshop he held on Human Factors on the South Canyon Fire led to deeper scrutiny of human factors inherent in decision-making, situational awareness and leadership and a push by Putnam for a national study on firefighter safety, launched a month later.

While earlier investigative reports cited the facts of people’s actions on wildfires, Putnam consistently pursues the “why” behind those actions.

Situational Awareness

In the chaos, confusion and frenzy that arise when battling a wildfire, people develop tunnel vision.

They need to step back, cooly gaze across the landscape and mindfully note all the changes occurring. Instead, they cling to whatever idea or plan they already made, shutting out new developments, said Putnam, a Missoula resident who winters in Prescott.

“Stress, fear and panic predictably lead to the collapse of clear thinking and organizational structure,” Putnam wrote in a 1995 paper for the MTDC.

“While these psychological and social processes have been well studied by the military and the aircraft industry, the wildland fire community has not supported similar research for the fireline. The fatal wildland fire entrapments of recent memory have a tragic common denominator: human error.”

One such error was a dispatcher’s failure to transmit to firefighters a Red Flag Warning of a cold front bringing high winds to Storm King Mountain.

Chris Cuoco, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Grand Junction, Colo., had worked nonstop to ensure that the latest weather updates got to the fire crews.

He wept when he learned that they never received that news.

The military trains its people in mindfulness and situational awareness, said Cuoco, an Air Force veteran.

“They teach pilots this, airline pilots in particular. They have to take in a great deal of information very fast. They put them through hell in training. It reinforces ... how stress and exhaustion can affect the brain,” Cuoco said.

Putnam is “pretty academic, but human factors are a huge part of what’s going on out there,” said Winslow Robertson, who held the No. 2 position for the BLM in Grand Junction when the South Canyon Fire erupted.

“I’m a survivor, too, and I rehash this thing over and over and over. We use the word ‘mindfulness’ out there; I’m a big believer in that,” he said during a Sept. 27 interview in Palisade, Colo. “We want everybody to come home at night; we want everybody to stay safe. We want mindfulness, a hard word to describe.”

“Mindfulness,” said Hipke, “in whatever terms, is just being aware, being in the now. You get on autopilot.”

A Hard Sell

ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Fourteen firefighters died on Storm King Mountain west of Glenwood Springs, Colo., during the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994.

The question is how to inject mindfulness and situational awareness into a culture of tough, brave, can-do workaholics — the wildfire crews and their leaders.

Putnam’s approach draws some skepticism. The longtime student of eastern Zen meditation swears by that practice to gain control of one’s mind.

Putnam held meditation workshops with wildland firefighters and, by all reports, many found it useful. The psychologist himself tries to meditate twice a day. When he doesn’t, his wife, Gay, gently remonstrates him: “Ted, you’ve gone off your meditation.”

Edwards, the old-school hotshot who retired in Helena, took some Putnam workshops and modified the approach for his hotshot crews.

“We would do a breathing exercise to clear all the clutter out of your head and have a blank slate so, when you get the briefing, you could get it in (your head),” he said. “No questions were to be asked. Just be there and listen. Then we would go into a visualization period — put yourself in the situation described, the weather, what to expect. Then we would open it up to questions.”

On the fire front, “whenever we had a change of plan, the protocol was: We’d go through the whole process again and recognize things had changed.

“We had a really good safety record, and we had a really good crew, too,” Edwards said. “I think people felt they were part of something. ... Smart people on the crew gave me feedback. I’d ask, Did it help? Yeah, it helped a lot.”

Meditation won’t work “for some ex-cowboy who becomes a firefighter in Montana,” Cuoco said. “This is physiological; this is science; this is how the body reacts. They’re now realizing they need to give people training. The only way to learn to react under stress is to put them under stress and show them how that thinking changes. It’s not conscious. It has nothing to do with Eastern meditation.”

Many fire leaders endorse Putnam’s concept but recommend it be pitched with more emphasis on visualization and mindfulness to make it palatable to the fire community.

“I think Ted’s onto something,” Cook said. “There are all different ways mindfulness could be integrated (into training).”

It already is a central focus in much wildfire leadership training. And that training has come a long way since South Canyon.

Leaders not prepared well enough, soon enough

The Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program has drawn from best practices taught at the U.S. Marine Corps University, the NASA Astronaut Development Center and the U.S. Air Force Human Factors Research Lab, to name a few.

In the U.S. Forest Service today, everyone fighting wildland fires must take certain courses, and every promotion requires completion of higher-level classes. The tests would be difficult to fail though; the passing score is 70 percent.

Nonetheless, the curriculum is detailed, scientifically based and rigorous.

But while the Forest Service has formalized its requirements for leadership education and advancement, Cook said, that hasn’t happened among its NIFC partners — the BLM, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Fire Administration System-FEMA.

Cook would like to see curriculum institutionalized by all wildfire agencies to require more than the two mandatory classes: L180, a four-hour class on Human Factors and Wildland Service, and L280, a two-day course on Followership to Leadership.

“You’re talking about changing the whole culture,” he said, with effective leadership development, standardized curriculum, common shared experience and credible expert instruction.

“We don’t really have a process to screen our best and brightest and help develop them. We could prepare entry-level and mid-level leaders better than we do now, especially in the first two or three years when you’re leading other people’s kids.

“We have good leaders, don’t get me wrong,” Cook said. “(But) we don’t prepare our leaders well enough, soon enough, to put them into these situations. You’re talking about flawed humans in a hazardous environment.”

While such an education overhaul would require infusions of time and money, it also could ameliorate problems that inevitably occur when mixed crews from varied agencies suddenly are thrown together on large fires, where good leadership is imperative.

“Let’s wait ‘til 25 years into their careers and teach ‘em what they need to know,” joked Randy Skelton, deputy fire staff officer on the Payette National Forest. “I agree with (Cook); it needs to be a lot more structured. We don’t have any systematic way of working through the ranks.

“I would throw everything we have (except leadership curriculum) out the window and start from scratch. People who write and hold classes — that’s collateral duty. The courses don’t evolve very well,” Skelton added.

Hotshot superintendents are well-trained and work with their “students” at all times, Joe Brinkley said.

“FMOs (Fire Management Officers) have training and qualifications,” he said. “But then they’re not there (working the fire) to mentor those firefighters. When it’s Game Day — OK, good luck out there.”

Still, Joe Brinkley notes, “The firefighters of today are light years ahead of where we were.”

Staff Rides Drive Home Decision-making

The most riveting education model for wildfire personnel today, hands down, is the staff ride, a learning tool used by the U.S. Marine Corps and Army since the 1970s.

On fire staff rides, students are driven to the site of a fatality fire and actively participate in group exercises that help them develop decision-making skills. Put in the shoes of their predecessors, they’re guided to question: “What would I have done in this person’s place?” “How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?” “Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?” “What explains repeated organizational success or failure?” The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcends time and place, says the Staff Ride Library of the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program.

Cook and Larry Sutton, a BLM training unit leader at NIFC, are credited for developing the South Canyon Staff Ride, which often reduces participants to tears as they see how easily they could have made the same failed decisions under the same circumstances.

“I have never had any training that relayed messages as vividly as this did. I have never had training that left me both excited about what I learned — as well as awestruck by what I learned,” one participant comments on the WFLD Program website.

It’s a far cry from simply hiking the mountain and observing the terrain, as the Granite Mountain Hotshots did.

“Visiting a site is so much different from a Staff Ride,” Skelton said. “You put people in today’s situation. As a facilitator, you try to guide them into decisions. It has to be engaging and interactive. You can’t script it.”

“One of the main focuses ... became instilling more tools to promote intuitive — rather than analytical — thinking,” Robert Holt says in training documents. Holt is superintendent of California’s Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew, which leads a South Canyon Staff Ride each spring.

Many Staff Rides now are available, on Mann Gulch, the Thirtymile Fire or the notorious Idaho Fire of 1910, in which forest ranger Ed Pulaski, who invented the standard firefighting tool named for him, saved a ragtag group of foresters, miners and others fighting a fire on the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. It burned 3 million acres across Idaho and into Montana, killing an estimated 85 people and burning several towns.

Another effective educational tool is the safety training videos, such as those Hipke produces, used in annual spring refresher training to further underscore safe practices and good decision-making before the wildfire season gets underway.

The videos, available for public viewing on YouTube, dissect fire and human behavior on a given fire, reliving every element the crews faced, from weather patterns to tough terrain to a fire blowup. People who fought the fire often narrate, reviewing their mistakes and good decisions, and the lessons learned are carefully and dramatically chronicled so students learn from others’ experiences.

Contractor vs Career Firefighter

Staff rides, safety videos and improved safety training, however, enhance the skills only of those people who fight wildfires for a career.

That leaves out two extremes that have a powerful effect on how wildfires are fought: the contract workers brought in on a moment’s notice and the big bosses who deliver edicts to the fire managers below.

Contractors might constitute half of the workforce or more on any given wildfire.

“You have no idea what’s showing up,” said Alex Robertson, deputy fire staff officer for a vast swath of Oregon, working for the U.S. Forest Service and BLM. “Not all contractors are created equal. As an operations section chief, I get plenty of resources, but we have to really pay attention. Do they look fit enough?

“When hotshot crews show up, you know you’re at least getting a certain level. It’s very difficult. That’s the human factors side. How do you lead people you’ve never worked with before in high-stakes, high-stress incidents? It’s about making money for them.”

Such challenges only underscore the need for well-trained, competent leaders who constantly observe not only fire behavior, but also human behavior.

“Humans make mistakes. Some experienced, some novice,” Cook said. “We a lot of times put them in the fray without much differentiation.”

Meanwhile, seasoned fire managers report to officials in Washington, D.C., who may be from forestry, fisheries or recreation.

“People who come into these situations aren’t coming from fire,” said Alex Robertson. “Many times, they have zero experience on fire, but we’re coming to them for decisions. ... it could mean a bad deal for some poor firefighter on the ground because of a decision made many miles away.

“We’re trying to explain risk and exposure to someone who doesn’t know what it means to be on top of a snag patch with flames 100 feet high.”

“I’m looking at 20-plus years in fire service, but decisions are being made by somebody with 90 days,” said one manager, whose identity is being withheld to protect his career. “It may be a very talented, brilliant individual, but they don’t have the same mental slides. It’s troubling that somebody with 90 days’ experience is making decisions for firefighters nationwide.”

“Why would we hire non-fire people into a fire agency?” asked another supervisor, whose identity also is being withheld. “But it still happens today. People in charge of fire and aviation should have an understanding of fire and aviation. But the people in charge don’t.”

Military aviation people without fire experience often are hired under the federal “veterans’ preference,” and no one begrudges a job for someone who risked their life for their country. “But it takes so long for Department of Defense people to learn fire service,” the supervisor said. “We’ve got to get the focus back to the firefighters on the ground. You could have become a master in biology or some ‘ology,’ and you have to have at least 90 days’ experience. But you could become a fire management officer for a district.”

Administrators “have to be allowed the time to learn (fire),” said Joe Brinkley. “Somehow there has to be a relationship where everybody’s talking to everybody.”

That’s why leaders need to take time outside of the fire season to “build these relationships and trust” with top administrators, Alex Robertson said. “They’re going to make decisions that put firefighters at risk. So we’re trying to build those relationships.”

• • •

Skip to a section:20 Years Later - Remembering Victims - The Neighborhood - NIFC
ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Josh Brinkley sits next to a memorial for his brother Levi on Storm King Mountain in near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on Sept. 26, 2013. Brinkley's brother Levi, who was a member of the Prineville Hotshots, died on the mountain with 13 other firefighters during the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994.

Remembering Those Who Died in the South Canyon Fire

By Ashley Smith
asmith@magicvalley.com

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. • For a brief second, a cloud of red earth hung in the thin Rocky Mountain air, kicked up by Gooding resident Josh Brinkley’s boots as he labored up the steep trail on Storm King Mountain. 

It is the same red dirt on which his brother Levi spent the last moments of his life. On that spot almost 20 years ago, Levi frantically deployed his fire shelter as a 20-story wall of flames roared toward him. It was the place where Levi died next to 13 other firefighters while battling the South Canyon Fire on July 6, 1994. He was only 22, a member of the Prineville Hotshots.

The Storm King Mountain Monument Trail is rocky and steep. It’s hard to catch a breath at that altitude. Brinkley left the trailhead next to Interstate 70 early Sept. 26 with a crew from the Times-News. As he climbed, the snaking Colorado River and patches of farmland disappeared below. 

You can’t visit this part of the West and not know what happened here. At the trailhead is a tribute to the fallen firefighters. A mile in is a lookout and another reminder — a description of the wildfire that changed this place forever. 

Brinkley pushed past it all to his destination, a series of marble crosses hauled in years ago and planted on the steep side of the mountain,  bearing the names of those who died. He sat down next to the cross dedicated to his brother: “Levi Brinkley, 1971-1994.” 

Brinkley pointed out the dense 10-foot Gambel oak brush, the fuel source that caused havoc that summer day in 1994. When the wind blows, the dry leaves sound like cinnamon rubbed on a grater.

Puffs of clouds cast shadows that slowly move across the face of Storm King Mountain. This could be Idaho. The ridges, draws and drainages look like a hundred similar places in our home state. That means what happened there — almost 20 years ago on Storm King Mountain — could happen here. 

Weather Moves In

At 3:20 p.m. July 6, 1994, a cold front moved into the area with winds up to 45 mph. 

Wind pushed north up the drainage. Meanwhile, a cross stream of air blew in from the west, stoking the fire from below and causing it to blow up. The fire ignited the dry Gambel oak and sped toward the firefighters. 

The peak of Storm King Mountain sits at 8,793 feet. And the sides of the canyon below slope from 50 to 100 percent, making it difficult to escape. 

At 4 p.m., flames soared 200 to 300 feet high, says the investigation report. The growing flame wall killed 14 firefighters in its path. Only smokejumper Eric Hipke survived from the group of 13 digging fire line in the Gambel oak. 

The Survivor’s Story

When the plane dropped eight smokejumpers that day, Hipke was annoyed. The 100-acre South Canyon Fire was larger than the smaller, remote fires jumpers traditionally fight. Hipke wished they’d jumped a smaller fire they spotted on the short flight from Grand Junction, Colo. 

Hipke and the others mapped out a strategy with Incident Commander Butch Blanco. The plan was to start digging line down the west side of the mountain for 400 feet and then across the ridge.

The fire was slowly creeping along, and they were digging line alongside it. Hipke said the oak was tall and green, belying its dryness. Gambel oak is in its last stages of life when the leaves are green and shiny.

Storm King Mountain (click for descriptions)


H2
Helicopter landing spot atop the ridge. The firefighters dug the West Flank Line starting off of this ridge.
Final Scramble
Crosses memorialize the spots where each firefighter fell, just hundreds of feet from the top of the ridge.
Helitack
Crosses mark the spot where the two helitack crew members died trying to run from the flames.
Escape Route
Eric Hipke screamed as he crested the ridge and was knocked to the ground. He sprinted off this edge into the east canyon, escaping death by seconds.
Scott Blecha
A cross marks where Scott Blecha died, just seconds away from the top of the ridge.
West Flank Line
Firefighters dug this line before the spot fire at the base of the canyon forced their retreat.

 “Thats how we got sucked into this thing; the fire was just creeping along. We get 300 feet down there and we go, ‘Whoa. We're getting kind of trapped in here.’ One of our big mistakes was not having a Plan B.”

As he has looks back on that day in the 20 years since, he remembers the moments before the flames overwhelmed them. He remembers finishing lunch. He remembers joking with Jim Thrash and Terri Hagen, who would die moments later. 

“I remember talking with Don Mackey and Tami Bickett; she was going to marry a Redmond smokejumper,” Hipke said. “I walked and laughed with them.”

Roger Roth approached carrying two, 5-gallon tanks of water. They greeted Roth and looked back toward the lunch spot. That’s when they saw it — a column of smoke. Then they heard the noise it made, like a waterfall. 

“It’s like being at the ocean with the roar,” Hipke said. Without words, they all turned and started walking away from the smoke. 

“I was looking behind me at it; it was like little snapshots,” he said. “Every time I looked back, it was so much closer than I thought it would be. It was accelerating.” 

Everyone was tripping over rocks and struggling to climb the steep ridge. 

“I remember looking back, and I locked eyes with Mackey and he had a real look of concern. We just kept going,” Hipke said. 

Thrash stepped off to the side and said, “Shelter.” Roth heard him and stepped off to the other side. “And it’s like that car analogy, and I had a clear lane and just kept going,” Hipke said. “No way was I going to shelter in. This is the way I came in, and this is way I’m getting out. 

“Two people were yelling, ‘Drop your tools and run!’ Roth was 50 feet behind me. I looked right into his eyes and had that same feeling. They stopped for that 50 feet of time and then kept going. After that, I don’t remember seeing anyone. My hands were up by my head. The column of smoke was blocking the sun. Everything was red. And I was starting to feel it.

“It was 86 feet to the top, because that was where they found my Pulaski. I don’t remember carrying my Pulaski or dropping it.”

As Hipke trudged toward the ridge, he reached for his shelter, thinking he might use it to block the heat. But the shelter fell out of his hands. He didn’t look at it; he just kept moving. 

“I could feel the heat coming,” he said. “It kept getting hotter and hotter. I was so hot and getting hotter, and I didn’t have my gloves on. I was protecting my face and ears. I was 20 to 30 feet from the top.”

Did he trip or dive? Hipke still isn’t sure. He said it felt as if a blast threw him to the ground. Spinning fire whirls roared past him. He was screaming. Later, investigators told him the exhaling of his screams probably saved his life as it kept the superheated air out of his lungs. 

Hipke ran the last 15 feet. His pack straps melted off. He punched the waist strap off and ran over the ridge. 

“It was fantastic. If there was a cliff, I think I would have ran off it. I was frantic,” he said. 

As he ran down the east side of the ridge, he looked like a tree on fire, his hair smoking, firefighters below later told him. 

“We were looking at the 100-foot flames blasting the ridge, and we were wondering where everyone else was,” Hipke said. 

As firefighters wrapped the burned flesh of Hipke’s hands, cinders rained around them. 

The Pilgrimage 

A visit to Storm King Mountain is a pilgrimage firefighters continue to make. Many bring mementos, such as T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the name of a firefighting crew. The sound of windchimes on Terri Hagen’s memorial can be heard a short distance up the hill from Levi Brinkley’s memorial. 

When Josh Brinkley went to the site during the first winter after the fire, he saw 14 elk walk through snow past burned tree trunks. 

In September, as he sat next to Levi’s cross, he reflected on how close those 14 firefighters were to the top of the ridge and the escape route. 

Before leaving Levi’s memorial, Brinkley filled a little jar hanging from the cross with Jagermeister. He lifted the jar in the air in a kind of toast and downed it. 

He gently put his hand on the top of Levi’s cross and said, “Goodbye, Beav.”

ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS A view of Storm King Mountain where 14 firefighters died July 6, 1994.

• • •

Skip to a section:20 Years Later - Remembering Victims - The Neighborhood - NIFC
ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Chuck Johnson, who lives in Canyon Creek Estates, holds a photo he took of the South Canyon Fire, which killed 14 firefighters on July 6, 1994. Johnson poses for a photo on Sept. 29, 2013.

Unforgettable: Neighbors Still Grieve Firefighter Deaths

By Kimberlee Kruesi kkruesi@magicvalley.com

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. • The view from Chuck Johnson’s backyard isn’t always pleasant.

Almost 20 years ago, he walked outside to snap photos of the South Canyon Fire when it blew up, killing 14 firefighters. Sickened by the tragedy, he began inviting grieving firefighters to use his phone to call loved ones to tell them they were alive. 

Twenty years later, it’s a view Chuck, now in his 80s, still has trouble fully enjoying. 

“Every time I look up at that mountain, I think about it,” he said.

Gallery of Chuck Johnson's photos of the South Canyon Fire

Chuck and his wife, Bev, were two of the first people to report the South Canyon Fire to dispatchers July 2, 1994. They watched as the mountain out back disappeared in smoke and the park in front of their home became the fire base camp. 

This September, during a visit by the Times-News, they wept when recalling the firefighters who died when the fire erupted July 6, 1994.

Their sorrow underscores the permanent effects of multiple-fatality wildfires on not only family and friends, but entire communities.

Chuck, a former firefighter and meteorologist, said the fire didn’t feel right to him from the start. He took long walks around the Canyon Creek Estate loop, keeping an eye on the mountain and the fire camp. The fuel was bone-dry from years of drought, and the winds were unstable.

Chuck said he tried to express his concerns about the fire, weather and fuel, but fire officials ignored him.

“I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me,” he said.

When the fire exploded, Chuck grabbed his camera and began taking photos as the fire grew and smoke swarmed the mountain. 

His photos show how quickly the fire took over the mountain. In a few frames, the smoke expands from a small column to a giant cloud surrounding the hills in his backyard.

A few days later, he and Bev watched from their living room as fire officials transferred body bags from the helicopter into vehicles. 

“It was an emotionally hard time for me,” Chuck said. “I don’t like talking about it.” 

“To this day,” Bev said, “helicopter noise still gets to me.”

When the fire finally was put out and the firefighters moved on, Chuck and Bev were left with a distraught neighborhood and scarred landscape.

A few weeks afterward, they began working with neighbors to build a memorial to the 14 firefighters who died — hotshots from Prineville, Ore., and two smokejumpers from McCall, Idaho.

George Morris, also a former firefighter, and his wife, Jenny, helped the Johnsons with the logistics of the memorial. 

“We lost these firefighters in our backyard,” George said. “We had to do something.”

They cleared brush and weeds from the entrance to Canyon Creek Estates and gathered donations to buy 14 boulders and inscribe each with the name of a fallen firefighter.

“They say, ‘We’ll never forget,’” Chuck said. “But I like to say, ‘We’ll always remember.’”

One of the fallen, Roger Roth, always will be remembered not only in Glenwood Springs, but also in Idaho.

One of the last photos of the Prineville Hotshots, taken by Chuck Johnson.

Smoke chaser

Roger Roth (courtesy photo)

Roger Roth chased smoke. A seasonal, migrant firefighter, he jumped to help crews across the country. 

When wildfire season cooled in the Northwest, he headed to the Everglades to fight flames in winter.

So when Roger called to wish his mother a happy Fourth of July in 1994, she wasn’t surprised that he and his crew were responding to a fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. 

The shock would come two days later, when the family was told he was dead. Roth was 29.

He died with 13 fellow firefighters trying to escape the flames chasing them up Storm King Mountain. 

The Roth brothers grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they built a life of hunting, fishing and hiking, said his older brother, Jim Roth.

Jim said Roger was outgoing and adventurous. 

He didn’t always want to be a firefighter, though. Near Isle Royale National Park one day, Jim recalled, “We were in the canoe and all of a sudden Roger said, ‘One day I’m gonna work here.’ And that’s what he did.”

Roger spent summers maintaining trails in wilderness inhabited by wolves and moose. 

Years later, when the National Park Service was at the peak of wildfire season, Roger was asked if he would fight flames for two weeks. The agency was running low on resources and needed volunteers.

After those two weeks, Roger was hooked, Jim said.

He applied and was accepted to the Arrowhead Hotshot crew in California as a seasonal firefighter. Once winter came, he would fly to the other side of the country where wildfire season was just beginning and apply for a spot on a hotshot crew that needed him.

“He would send me pictures from the Grand Canyon and write on the back, ‘The view from my office,’” Jim said. “Meanwhile, I was working for NASA, and I really was in an office.”

Jim Cook remembers Roth as an outstanding firefighter. Cook, a hotshots supervisor for 25 years, worked for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

He hired Roth to work on his hotshot crew and found him laid-back and easygoing, but with a strong work ethic.

“He was a hell of an athlete,” Cook said. “He always finished in the top quarter of the runs.”

Roger’s crews benefited not only from his athleticism, but also from his generosity and humor, said Mary Emerick, who fought fire with him in Florida for three years.

Emerick said he helped replace the brakes on her car and didn’t make fun of her when she needed help loading heavy firefighting equipment.

“Roger was the kind of guy who would help anyone out,” she said. “He had a great heart.”

When Roger called his brother to ask if he should apply to be a smokejumper, Jim Roth told him the answer was easy.

“Look Roger, skydiving is the next-best thing to sex,” Jim said. 

Roger soon was a smokejumper based in McCall.

“Those became his two great loves,” Jim said. “Fire and skydiving.”

Jim and Roger didn’t see each other often. They frequently were called apart on assignments. Jim always thought they’d have more time.

“Back then, I would have sworn on a Bible that we would get old and I could visit him in some log cabin that he had built and we would catch up on old times. I would bounce his kids on my knee and we would swap stories. And now I have to accept that will never happen, at least not in this life.”

Jim didn’t know Roger was on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado until he got the call his brother was missing. He had last talked to Roger several weeks earlier, when his brother was in New Mexico. 

The day Roger died, Emerick was fighting a fire just 50 miles from Storm King Mountain. After the deaths, she and her team were told there had been an accident.

When she learned that Roger had died in the flames, she said, her view on wildfire was flipped upside down. 

Her love for firefighting tainted, she almost didn’t return the following year to fight fires. Roger’s memory haunted her.

“When you fight fire, you either have it or you don't,” Emerick said. “There's some people who just get it, and Roger was that kind of person. Knowing that Roger had been trapped, that changed my whole life. I stayed in fire for a few more years, but that was the beginning of the end for me. ... It just felt like this thing that I loved kind of betrayed us.”

Jim said that while he lost his brother, he gained a family of firefighters at the funeral Roger’s crew members from across the nation were there. They stayed at the Roths’ home to talk and to mourn.

“They educated me on wildfires and gave me the mental support to get through that time,” he said. “I am deeply grateful for them. They are my family.”

Jim visits Storm King Mountain at least once or twice a year. He stops hikers on the trail to ask them why they’re there.

“It’s the one place I can go to find peace and calm,” he said. “That ground is hallowed.”

Hunter, conservationist, smokejumper

Jim Thrash (courtesy photo)

Jim Thrash was a McCall smokejumper, too, but he also was an outfitter, hunter and wilderness advocate. He championed conservation while befriending wolf and elk hunters. As a smokejumper, he gained his peers’ respect by emphasizing safety, but he wasn’t afraid to dive into challenging wildfire situations. 

Jim discovered his love for firefighting in the 1970s while working for the Forest Service’s Youth Conservation Corps, said Holly Thrash, his wife. The two met in college in southern California, and both got jobs with the Forest Service after graduation.

Jim applied for his first full-time firefighting job near the Boise area in 1979. He had grown up in Arizona but dreamed of moving to Idaho because of his passion for the outdoors, she said. During winter, he taught Spanish and government for the Middleton School District and coached baseball. 

Two years later, he applied to be part of the elite McCall smokejumper crew. The couple moved to New Meadows and threw themselves into making a home there. They had two children, Ginny and Nathan, and Jim quickly became involved with the Idaho Guide and Outfitters Association. 

Joe Fox, Jim’s “rookie brother,” said they shared an interest in politics and conservation. Jim had an anti-authoritarian streak and sometimes challenged Forest Service policy when it came to wildlife sustainability, Fox said. 

“He got my jokes, and I got his political alignment,” he said. 

The friendship lasted 15 years — and then they were called to the South Canyon Fire. Fox went to Glenwood Springs with Jim and his crew.

It was a typical fire, Fox said. No one was worried or speaking up about a lack of resources or excessive dry fuel. When Jim was selected to dig line on Storm King Mountain, not even Fox was worried. 

“I was down below, clearing brush from houses,” he said. “Even when I saw the smoke growing on the mountain, we thought it was going to be OK.”

Eventually, Fox overheard on the radio that firefighters had to outrun the fire and shelters had been deployed, but he was hesitant to believe the worst. Only when the missing firefighters failed to respond to radio calls did Fox know something was wrong.

Back in McCall, Holly didn’t even know her husband was in Colorado. On July 7, the day after the fire blowout, Jim’s visiting father told her that firefighters were missing on a wildfire in Colorado. 

Since she was driving into town, Holly stopped by the McCall Smokejumper Base to find out if she knew any of the missing. They told her they didn’t know anything yet.

“I think they knew, but they didn’t want to tell me yet until they had more information,” she said.

A few hours later, officials from Payette National Forest and the smokejumper base came to her house and confirmed that Jim was missing. They came back later to tell her Jim was dead.

“I was in shock,” Holly said. “Jim and I really didn't talk about the worst that could happen. We knew it was a dangerous profession. We were kind of prepared for that conversation, but it was still a shock.”

Firefighters close to Jim were also surprised that he was among those killed, she said.

Every firefighter has a story where he barely made it out alive, but Jim was a stickler for safety even when throwing himself into dangerous situations, his colleagues told her.

“I found out later from people who had been with Jim on close calls and how he was instrumental in getting them to safety,” she said. “They were so shocked he died.”

It’s been 13 years since Holly and her children climbed Storm King Mountain. They took Jim’s father for his 80th birthday with a few of Jim’s firefighter buddies.

“After that, it's good enough for me,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll go back for the 20th anniversary. I’m still debating.”

Today, Holly works for the McCall Smokejumper Base. Three years ago, she was asked to fill a position temporarily until they hired someone permanently.

Surrounded by memories and firefighters who knew Jim, Holly said it wasn’t an easy decision to go back. At times, an event would trigger hard memories from almost 20 years ago, but the base eventually grew on her. 

“There's quite a large firefighter community in the McCall area,” she said. “It’s great people to be associated with. I’m kind of stuck with them whether they want to be or not.”

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Where Do National Fire Requests Go?

ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Nicole Hallisey, assistant cache manager, talks about shipping fire equipment to firefighters all over the country from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

By Kimberlee Kruesi kkruesi@magicvalley.com

BOISE • The center of the nation’s wildfire training and dispatch activity is tucked away behind the airport in Boise.

More than 400 personnel make up the National Interagency Fire Center — fire dispatchers, meteorologists, warehouse workers, firefighters and smokejumpers — many of whom gather information, receive and distribute calls for resources and respond to wildfires in any corner of the United States.

While eight federal agencies are stationed at NIFC, no single agency is the sole manager or director of the center. Instead, they work together in uniform tan buildings that each serve a different critical support year-round.

Dispatch Center

ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS David Hendren, emergency operations coordinator at the National Interagency Fire Center, talks Nov. 6, 2013, in Boise about the deployment of resources to battle fires.

At the heart of the NIFC campus is the National Incident Communications Center (NICC). 

The room is quiet in the winter, almost peaceful, with sunlight pouring in from its many windows. In the summertime, the space is alive with dispatchers, meteorologists and fire managers huddling in and out and taking thousands of calls requesting resources or information.

NIFC works with resource coordination centers from across the country. 

It works on a three-tiered system for support: If a fire is reported in south-central Idaho, the call goes to the Shoshone dispatch center where they send firefighters out to suppress the flames. If the fire continues to grow, however, the agency managing the fire can ask for help from its geographic area, in this case, the East Basin coordination center in Utah. When they run out of resources, it can ask the NICC for help locating what it needs.

NIFC doesn’t fill requests, though, said Dave Hendren, NICC’s emergency operations coordinator. It distributes requests to other centers where they will send the requested resources like air tanker or radios or firefighting crews.

How long does it take to fill a request once it gets to NIFC? That depends, Hendren said. Calls are distributed immediately, but they may be categorized as lower priority if a larger wildfire is demanding more of the nation’s firefighting crews and supplies.

ASHLEY SMITH • TIMES-NEWS Boxes with radio equipment wait to be shipped out to wildland fires around the country. The National Interagency Fire Center, pictured Nov. 6, 2013, is the national support center for wildland firefighting and is in Boise.

Radio Cache

The NIFC radio cache is the largest in the world, storing 8,000 handheld radios, 200 repeaters and 15 portable satellite systems.

Radios are still the primary source of communication used on wildfires. They work in remote areas where cell service is nowhere to be found.

The cache primarily sends radios to wildfires, but it also sends communication supplies to disaster areas like Hurricane Katrina and Haiti. 

The cache has enough supplies to send radios to 53 major disasters at one time. 

When the radios are returned, workers clean, reprogram, test and repair them as needed. Radio systems can be processed and sent back out to a wildfire within four to six hours. 

Warehouse

Providing firefighters with enough food, water and supplies requires a warehouse big enough to store the supplies.

The NIFC warehouse is one of the nation’s 15 firefighting supply bases. The Costco-size warehouse is filled with aisles of carboxes. Inside the boxes are anything a firefighter might need: Canteens, tents, water pumps and even helicopter supplies. 

More than two million pounds of supplies are shipped out every year, said Nicole Hallisey, assistant cache manager. Of that amount, the warehouse re-circulates almost 1.7 million pounds back to the warehouse where everything is cleaned and prepared to be shipped out again.

It is also the national storage center for training materials and operation manuals for fire suppression.

The warehouse holds enough supplies to outfit — from the protective clothes to helmets and packs — 1,000 to 1,800 firefighters in 24 hours, depending on the month, Hallisey said.

“This is a 24-hour business,” she said. “When I was a firefighter, we just got stuff in cardboard boxes. Now that I work on the other side, it’s a lot more than that.”

Smokejumper Base

One of Idaho’s three smokejumper bases are located on the NIFC campus. 

Unlike the McCall location, this base is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The only other smokejumper base not managed by the U.S. Forest Service is in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Considered an elite group of firefighters, smokejumpers parachute into remote places to put out flames. They pride themselves on being able to get to a wildfire faster than any other crew 20 miles out. 

It only takes a smokejumper eight minutes to get in his suit and get on the plane once they are dispatched.

Firefighter Gear Breakdown

Before heading to the flames, firefighters are required to carry and wear specific protective equipment.

Here is a breakdown of what they wear:

Boots

There’s a reason firefighters are often called “boots on the ground.” A good pair of boots is essential to any firefighter to protect from hot embers, prevent slips on rough terrain and reduce the risk of falls or sprains. It’s the only piece of equipment not provided by the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but they must be certified wildland boots.

Shirt and Pants

Those forest green pants and bright yellow shirts aren’t worn because they look good. The uniform is a key component of wildland fire personal equipment.

The original shirts used in 1962 were treated with fire retardant chemicals and issued in a bright orange color. Fire officials quickly switched the uniform color to yellow after aircraft mistook the orange for flames and dropped retardant on firefighters. The pants weren’t required until 1974.

Today, the shirts and pants are made of heat-resistant, synthetic aramid fabric. When exposed to flame, the fabric burns but instead of melting when the burning stops, the fabric forms a char that protects the skin.

Gloves

To prevent blisters, cuts, scratches and minor burns during routine firefighting.

Hard Hat

Made out of thermoplastics or fiberglass, hard hats save firefighters from serious head injuries against falling trees, limbs and rolling rock. They’re typically lightweight — 15.5 ounces — to help keep heat being released from firefighters heads and prevent overheating.

Face and Neck Shrouds

Rectangle piece of fabric that hangs from firefighters’ hard hats to the shoulders. It is attached to the hard hat and can be removed or rolled outside of the hard hat and fastened above the bill. Shrouds are used almost exclusively in wildland fire, unlike structural firefighting where they use balaciava-style hoods.

Eye Protection

To keep dust, ash and debris out of firefighters’ eyes.

Fire Shelter

Every firefighter carries a fire shelter around his or her waist. To remove the shelter, firefighters unzip the bag and shake out the shelter. They then climb into the shelter and lie completely flat on the ground.

Firefighters are trained to use them as a last resort.

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