Thursday, June 12, 2008

South Canyon Fire memorial trail

It has been 14 years since I was at this location. 14 years earlier on July 6, 1994, 14 dead bodies were pulled from the side of this mountain on a helicopter that landed next to where I was working as a firefighter at the time for Snowmass Village FD. During the South Canyon Fire (also sometimes referred to as the Storm King Mountain fire), conditions rapidly changed on the afternoon of July 6th, resulting in 14 firefighters being over run by fire sweeping up the canyon they were working in.

I won't get into details on the situation. That is covered in depth on line and in books. For me, this was my first wildland fire. I was working as a volunteer for a structure fire department. We sent 1 engine company to this fire at the request of the Forrest Service. Our job was to protect the helicopters as they re-fueled. Since this was a large, active fire, the helicopters would land and keep engines running while they re-fueled. This is obviously dangerous but was allowed at the time. We had a fire engine and 4 people there to put out any fires that may start as a result of this practice. For us, the work was light compared to the crew on the fire line.

I remember clearly when the helicopters landed with the rescued firefighters that survived the blowup. I remember clearly the looks on their faces. They had lost 14 brothers and sisters. I remember the Governor showing up at the helipad to fly up to the disaster site. I remember seeing him wearing his USFS issued nomex fire pants and shirt with his polished wing tip shoes on. I remember watching the body bags be unloaded from the helicopters by the very same firefighters that survived. I remember feeling very insignificant and embarrassed for my relatively easy assignment on this fire.

A few years after the fire, a memorial was built on the mountain side where each of the 14 firefighters was found. I had always wanted to hike this trail and visit those memorials. On June 8, 2008, I had that opportunity to make that hike. To see the canyon the way those 14 had seen it. To try to envision the firestorm that ripped up through that canyon. To try to envision the race for their lives those 14 made.

What I found most amazing from this journey was the location of the 12 firefighters that were together (2 were in a different location on a different task). They were a hand line team working closest to the fire and had the longest run to safety. All 12 of these firefighters were within 100 feet of each other when they died. They were all within 200 feet from safety. Many were only a few feet from each other. They stayed together as a fire team until the very end. To begin to imagine their last moments... Those that could run faster staying back to help and encourage those who were slower. To put your friends, bothers, sisters and team ahead of you during this mad dash for life. To lay next to each other, probably huddled together protecting themselves as the fire roared past. This is what I found most amazing. Being a firefighter myself, I know the importance of team work, trusting your team and staying together as a team. I can't describe seeing memorial stones as close together as these were on the side of this mountain after this team ran hundreds of yards at full speed. This was one team that could not, would not, be separated at any cost.

My pictures of this hike and the memorial sites can be found at:
http://chadwick.smugmug.com/Fire/South-Canyon-Trail/

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