The city of Grand Junction, located at the confluence of the Colorado and Gunnison rivers, is the crossroads of western Colorado for trade, agriculture and government. The fertile river valley is ringed by flat-topped mesas, lonely, bleak and arid in the best of times. In the summer of 1994 the city's 38,000 residents and all of western Colorado, from the mountain resorts to the peach orchards around Grand Junction, faced a severe drought. There had been little snowfall over the winter, and unusually hot, dry weather had followed in May and June. Only once every thirty or forty years did such events occur in combination -- drier conditions in 1990 had not lasted as long.
In anticipation of an outbreak of forest fires Christopher J. Cuoco, a National Weather Service forecaster from Denver, had been stationed in Grand Junction at the Western Slope Coordination Center, a federal fire office located at the city's Walker Field airport. At 3:00 P.M. on Friday, July 1, 1994, Cuoco issued a Red Flag Watch to firefighters in western Colorado. Expect high winds, lightning and no rain, Cuoco told them, and added, "A high potential for large fire growth."
By six-thirty the next morning, Saturday, July 2, Cuoco had upgraded the watch to a Red Flag Warming, meaning that the chance of a major storm had become, for him, a certainty. In his new forecast, Cuoco told firefighters, "Stronger winds will come later this afternoon. Widely scattered thunderstorms with little or no rain. Wind gusts to forty miles an hour possible."
Cuoco's prediction joined a stream of drought-related warnings issued by the array of government agencies charged with forestfire suppression, from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to state, county and volunteer fire offices. The cautions ran a broad gamut: One federal safety officer reminded fire crews to drink plenty of water "and not so much sugar drinks"; another warned that a wind of only ten miles an hour could play havoc with fire in the thickets of scrub oak, pinyon pine and juniper in the high desert country around Grand Junction.
All these levels of government -- federal, state and county -- had anticipated trouble early in the spring when several fires deliberately set to clear brush had burned out of control. After a series of meetings, the Bureau of Land Management, responsible for more acreage than any other agency, announced an aggressive policy of attacking all fires as soon as they were spotted. By the end of June, with precipitation at half normal levels and temperatures rising over the hundred-degree mark even in the mountains, virtually every forestry worker in Colorado knew that an electrical storm like the one Cuoco forecast could literally spark disaster.
The first bolt of lightning struck on July 2 in late morning, about 11:40. Before the day ended, more than fifty-six hundred strikes would follow, making this one of the worst lightning storms in the history of the state. Whatever rain it carried evaporated long before reaching ground. The storm arrived at Grand junction at midafternoon, rattling metal roofs, sending trash bins end over end and scooping bone-dry dirt and sand into an old fashioned, Depression-era dust storm.
At Walker Field airport, the wind sent stacks of tumbleweed hurtling along runways. The sky turned an eerie gray-brown. Cuoco rushed outside and began snapping photographs.
The thunderstorm swept through the Grand Valley of the Colorado River, fifty miles long and twenty miles wide. It continued east to the Book Cliffs, a line of mesas named for their resemblance to a shelf of books, and poured through a gap cut by the Colorado River, one of the nation's longest waterways and one of the most heavily used -- for everything from electrical-power generation to float trips. It followed upriver a dozen miles on a twisting course through Debeque Canyon, barely wide enough to hold the river and the four lanes of Interstate 70, the fast new highway linking Denver and the western part of the state. Centunes of winds had carved the canyon's sandstone cliffs into a pattern of small, deep hollows called "honeycomb weathering," easily mistaken for swallows' nests.
The storm rumbled out of Debeque Canyon and onto a broad plain stretching eastward more than thirty miles to the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. Once again it kept on course with the river, following the Colorado to Battlement Mesa, a massive formation standing alone in the valley twenty miles beyond Debeque Canyon. There, in July 1976, three men had been killed battling a forest fire, the last such deaths in the state. Fresh growth had long since covered the bum scars, but for those who knew its history Battlement Mesa bore continuing witness to what can happen on a hot afternoon on a steep slope in the wake of a lightning storm.
From the mesa the storm had an open path to the Grand Hogback, a bristling hundred-mile-long ridge that runs at right angles to the Colorado River and marks the official western boundary of the Rocky Mountains. The storm cascaded over the low ridge, hardly breaking stride, and entered the final broadening of the valley. Ahead the mountains rose steeply, but the vegetation remained the scrubby Gambel oak and pinyon pine and juniper, or PJ, of the desert. The snowcapped peaks and alpine forests of picture-postcard Colorado lay farther east.
A dozen miles beyond the Grand Hogback, nearly ninety miles in all from Grand Junction, the mountains came together in what appeared to be an unbroken front, though on closer inspection a narrow V could be seen barely wide enough for the Colorado River, I-70 and a set of railroad tracks. To the north of the Colorado rose a single bulky peak almost nine thousand feet -- high Storm King Mountain.
The mountain had a remote, unapproachable appearance despite overlooking a major highway. Ridges fanned out from its peak like arms from a misshapen octopus. One ridge, the longest and heaviest, had been sheared off by the river and now loomed above the highway. It came to be called by different names; in this story it will be Hell's Gate Ridge. The slopes of the mountain and its ridges were covered with scrub oak, shining an oily green, broken by stands of dwarfish PJ. Rockslides exposed dull tan and reddish shale. Dead brush filled deeply eroded gullies.
When the thunderstorm reached the end of the valley, it hurled itself against Storm King Mountain and caught there.
David and Jo Temple were at dinner with their two sons -- Matthew, ten, and Beau, seven -- when the storm hit. The Temple house, built in the foothills of the mountain, resembled an old-fashioned fire-lookout tower, a role it came to play in reality as events unfolded. It was two stories high, made with rough wooden siding, and had a walkway around the glassed-in second story. All it needed to complete the picture was a forest ranger wearing a Smokey Bear hat and sporting a pair of binoculars.
The Temple family had come out from the Midwest two decades earlier in search of a place of their own in the mountains. Their house had a sweeping view across a meadow to the heights of Storm King. In their first years there, the Temples watched on winter evenings as herds of elk fed in the meadow, the animals tolerant of the whine from an occasional vehicle on the two-lane highway -- I-70 before it became a four-lane interstate. But as time passed, the Temples' dream vanished, piece by piece.
In the 1980s developers acquired the meadow, putting up a ring of custom-built houses called Canyon Creek Estates. With a nod to nature, they left enough of the meadow to form an oval common in the center of the development, but the elk no longer gathered there to browse. The last link Of I-70 was completed in 1992, bringing new life for a population boom already under way.
What had been called a "home in the woods" became known instead as the "urban-wildland interface," and since 1985, more than three hundred such structures had been lost to fire every year across the West. A fire had burned to the Temples' rear doorstep in 1990 after igniting on a hill behind their house. Fire engines pulled up within minutes, but their crews had no chance against a blaze with the wind at its back; the Temples were about to lose everything. With flames less than a hundred yards from the house, the wind shifted and the fire raced off on a different course. Charred tree trunks marking its route can still be seen.
Now, in the midst of the 1994 storm, Jo Temple tried to calm her children. Outside, storm and mountain had joined together, an indistinguishable mass of gray and black fractured by bolts of lightning. A single bolt made the link between sky and earth, striking a tree on Storm King's heaviest ridge, Hell's Gate Ridge, at the tip overlooking the Colorado River that came to be called Hell's Gate Point. The bolt tore open the tree and plunged into heartwood.
By the time the storm had spent itself and rolled off Storm King Mountain, it had ignited fifteen fires in the Grand Junction District of the Bureau of Land Management, which includes Storm King and a surrounding area of 1.8 million acres, a heavy burden for a district that normally sees fewer than eighty fires a season.
By Sunday morning, July 3, the only evidence on the mountain of the storm's furious embrace was a puff of smoke on Hell's Gate Point above I-70. In days to come, homeowners watched it from their backyards in Canyon Creek Estates, one making a video that not only showed the fire's progress but carried the homeowner's narration, in which he uncannily predicted the outcome of the drama days before it happened. Motorists by the score pulled Off I-70 to take photographs from the fire's first days as a smoke signal to its eventual, infernal climax; boaters watched it from the Colorado River, railroaders from the tracks across the river.
In the spa town of Glenwood Springs, tucked alongside the river five and a half miles to the east as the crow flies, bathers in the Great Swimming Pool, fed by hot springs legendary for their curative powers, saw the rising smoke come "over the King," just as residents for more than a century had watched storms come across the mountain's heights.
The smoke should have set sirens wailing from Grand Junction, with its many federal administrative offices, across the country to the suburbs of Denver, where the Rocky Mountain Coordination Center, part of a national system for fighting fire, had its headquarters, and to Boise, Idaho, home of the parent National Interagency Fire Center.
If the smoke column wasn't enough, a daily situation report by the BLM Grand Junction District should have prompted someone in the federal complex to action. On July 3 the district cautioned:
"Red flag warning, no relief in sight.
"Prognosis: Local I.A. [initial attack] is spread thin, radio communication inadequate for fire load and safety is in jeopardy. "
Not that the situation was ignored -- quite the contrary. Over the next two days, a parade of smoke jumpers, fire-engine crews, volunteer firemen, fire managers and aerial observers made almost hourly excursions to Storm King Mountain. They arrived in airplanes, fire engines, police squad cars and sport utility vehicles. They located the fire's exact position on maps, debated who should fight it, measured its rate of spread, assessed its future and ranked it against all others in the district.
But when dawn rose two days later on Tuesday, July 5, with the fire grown to a defiant threat, no one -- not a single soul -- had walked to the fire, let alone fought it.
It was still dark the morning after the storm, Sunday, July 3, when Chris Cuoco arrived at the Western Slope Coordination Center located in a simple metal-sided building at Grand Junction's Walker Field. At the center a handful of people were responsible for air support for fires in western Colorado and a slice of eastern Utah. Alone at this hour, except for an overnight radio dispatcher, Cuoco began to gather up limp facsimile paper containing weather data, but halted at a map showing the lightning pattern from the previous evening. The strikes had been so dense that a solid black line overlay the Colorado River. "In seven years in Colorado I'd never seen anything like it; it was one of the most energetic storms I'd ever seen," Cuoco said later. "That was one helluva storm."
At the age of thirty-seven, Cuoco retained a sense of wonder about the sky, coupled with a scientist's objectivity. He had the look of a cheerful monk -- plump, open-faced and radiating goodness, but with a sharp eye. His first job as a forecaster had been as an Air Force lieutenant based inside Cheyenne Mountain, the nuclear-bomb-proof hideaway near Colorado Springs, assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. There, he had monitored weather conditions for NORAD bases around the globe.
On one occasion he had found himself at the end of a command chain that linked him to a one-star general, his boss, who was talking to a four-star general, the chief of the Strategic Air Command, who was talking to the National Security Adviser, who was reporting to the President of the United States. The question came down to Cuoco: Are the streamers we see over the North Atlantic Ocean caused by the aurora borealis, or should we consider intercontinental ballistic missiles? Cuoco's answer was relayed back to the president: Yes, sit, they are the aurora borealis.
After leaving the Air Force, Cuoco spent two years in a Roman Catholic seminary, followed by a year of church work with youth, and then he took a job with the National Weather Service, serving his internship in Grand Junction. By 1994 he had transferred to Denver and become head of the service's fire weather program for the state of Colorado.
Cuoco was due to produce the day's first forecast by 6:00 A.M., still an hour and a half away. He had taken up duties at the Western Slope center a few days earlier, a last-minute idea of the center manager, Paul Hefner, who wanted a weather expert at his elbow. But it was an experiment. Cuoco had quickly discovered that no reliable procedure existed to pass along his forecasts to firefighters. The forecasts were as likely to wind up thumbtacked to a wall as to be transmitted by radio dispatchers.
Cuoco finished the morning forecast and began sending it by fax to BLM fire-dispatch offices in Grand Junction, Craig and Montrose in Colorado, and Moab, Utah. Once more he issued the highest alert.
"Red flag warning this afternoon and evening for hot and dry conditions," the forecast read. Increasing southwest winds would be troublesome for the many small fires started by lightning the day before.
"A high potential for large fire growth."
Sunday morning, after full light, Jo Temple went to the second floor of her house overlooking Storm King and opened one of the big glass windows. The air carried a tinge of electricity, a "scary calm," as though last night's storm had left behind unfinished business. She saw nothing extraordinary, though, and settled down at a table where she did sewing.
At midmorning she glanced up and saw a wisp of smoke from Hell's Gate Point. Temple grabbed the telephone and dialed the Garfield County emergency center, which handles everything from treed cats to forest fires. They quickly relayed the report to the BLM's Grand Junction District office.
Others saw it, too. One man called in from South Canyon, a nondescript gully containing a few small ranches, old mine works and a landfill with a view of Storm King Mountain from the opposite side of the Colorado River and I-70. The man phoned directly to the BLM's Grand Junction district office and reached Flint Cheney, the lead dispatcher. He told Cheney he could see a "small whiff of smoke," but not its source. Cheney gave the smoke report the next fire number on his list, V891.
Minutes later Cheney received a call from Grand Junction's Western Slope Coordination Center. They had heard the smoke report and happened to have an aerial observer aloft in that vicinity. As part of normal procedure they needed a name for the fire so the pilot could check it out. What happened next was a small, unimportant mistake, but it set a pattern: In the days ahead, small mistakes became a series of unforgiving errors that finally compounded into one giant screwup.
Since Cheney had just heard from South Canyon, he used that name even though the fire was on the opposite side of the river. When asked why he didn't change it to the Storm King fire once he learned the true location, minutes later, Cheney's shoulders drooped. "It would have been more of a hassle to back out," he said.
To this day the events on Storm King Mountain in July of 1994 are known as the South Canyon fire.
By late Sunday morning reports of the smoke on Storm King were coming in from every quarter. Members of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, a mix of volunteer and paid firefighters, saw the smoke as they fought another fire nearby and called the Garfield County sheriffs office in Glenwood Springs. Sheriffs Deputy Steve Stebbing was dispatched, and became the first official on the scene.
Stebbing took I-70 to the foot of the mountain and watched as the fire spread from one to two trees. Alarmed, he radioed a request for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department to "extinguish the fire if they could." But they refused, saying the fire was in "very rugged" terrain and would take hours to reach.
The Glenwood Springs department had no legal and perhaps no moral responsibility to fight the fire, though afterward everyone wished there had been more cooperation all around. Following brief initial confusion, it had been established the fire was on BLM land and not private property. The main job of the Glenwood Springs department was protecting the city's homes and businesses, not making excursions onto federal property to fight wildfire, the universal term for fire in the open.
"We knew about the lightning strike," Jim Mason, director of emergency services for Glenwood Springs, said later. "Primarily our focus is for structure [homes and other buildings] firefighting."
Neither the Glenwood Springs department nor the New Castle Volunteer Fire Department, the next jurisdiction to the west of Storm King, had made its firefighters take the basic skills course and physical fitness test required to fight wildfire on federal lands, though they had some wildfire training.
The BLM for its part was skeptical about the ability of any volunteer fire department to help them. In an overall fire management plan completed in 1992, the BLM's Grand Junction District noted that county and volunteer fire departments had plenty of crews and equipment, but questioned their reliability. "There is a concern for the dependability of their equipment, and the lack of fire behavior and other safety related training," the 1992 plan said.
All this did nothing to stop citizens watching the fire from bombarding the Glenwood Springs and New Castle departments with demands that they act, and in a hurry. So many spoke to Don Zordel, chief of the New Castle department, that at one point he drove to Storm King to look at the fire for himself. He pulled Off I-70 at Canyon Creek Estates, estimated the fire to be a long mile beyond his jurisdictional boundary and drove home.
After the fire, Zordel and others in his department caused a stir with angry public remarks that the fire should have been put out sooner and that the New Castle department could have helped, statements widely interpreted to mean that the BLM had refused an offer of assistance.
"We could possibly have been of some assistance, yes," Zordel told The Glenwood Post. "This particular fire was not in my district, but the policy in my district, even if a fire is on federal land, is to put it out."
Discussing this in a later interview, Zordel acknowledged that he had never volunteered his department's services. In fact, he said, the BLM often helped him with fires. When he had made those remarks, he said, he had been blind with rage at the subsequent events on Storm King Mountain, ready to lash out at anyone. He was preparing now, he said in the interview, to have all members of his department qualified to fight wildland fire on federal lands, using training funds approved by the Colorado state legislature in the wake of the South Canyon fire.
It took until early afternoon Sunday, July 3, before any firefighter was dispatched to Storm King. It was nearing 2:30 P.M. when the loudspeaker outside the Western Slope Coordination Center in Grand Junction clicked and a metallic voice called out, "One load of jumpers!" The voice stirred action at the smokejumper ready shack located only a few feet from the Western Slope center.
Smoke jumpers are the elite cavalry of firefighting, parachuting onto small fires in the worst terrain the West can offer. They strike quickly, work fast and move on, leaving large, time consuming fires to others. They live on adrenaline and $10,000 to $15,000 a summer in regular pay plus overtime, justifying their high training and transportation costs by keeping small blazes like the South Canyon fire from becoming big problems. In 1994 there were 388 smoke jumpers nationwide, the small number far out of proportion to the big job expected of them.
The ready shack at Western Slope, home for twenty jumpers, is located as far as possible from the passenger terminal at Walker Field, a circumstance the jumpers take personally and use to nurse a self-image as outside dogs, unloved until they become essential for the hunt. Waiting for a fire call, they lounge about like a pride of lions, restless, bored and a touch dangerous. One or two young men strut around shirtless, skin taut even around the belly and muscles cut in high relief They wear their green pants rolled up -- the fireresistant material allows only poor ventilation, and rolled trousers add style. They keep their heavy logging boots on even in the desert heat -- it takes too long to lace them once the alarm sounds. They know that the day's work has ended when someone calls out, "Let's take off the boots."
Ask how they're doing, and they grin and reply, "Living the dream!"
One wall of their ready shack stands open, pushed up like the door of a suburban garage. Inside, folding tables are strewn with a collection of well-thumbed magazines and paperbacks on sports and war. Two sewing machines stand in a comer ready to do repair work on the jumpers' elaborate rigging. A freezer holds the plastic water bottles that are handed to jumpers as they head for a fire, a welcome treat.
A single bathroom serves all. Women, who first broke into the jumper ranks in 1981, now make up about 5 percent of the force. The rear door of an airplane hangs from a wall hook like a poster, the only ornament in the place -- jump planes fly with the door off. The pilots and air crews have their own house trailer with screen doors, air-conditioning and television; the jumpers get nothing so cushy.
Outside, a couple of stunted willows, which receive lavish watering by the jumpers, provide minimal shade. A chain-link fence surrounds the facilities, giving them the look of a minimum security prison. The occasional coyote or rabbit can be seen beyond the steel mesh, loping through sagebrush.
When the loudspeaker announced the call for the South Canyon fire, George Steele, at the age of forty-six one of the most experienced men in jumping, made the short walk to the Western Slope center. He would act as spotter on this mission, picking the drop spot and providing the link between the jumpers, air crew and dispatch office. A tap from his hand would send jumpers into free fall.
Steele, his black hair beginning to grizzle, had been at the job so long he sounded like an action report, his speech studded with military jargon such as "affirmative" and "negative" for yes and no, and phrases like "we proceeded on." But the only thing Steele regretted about his chosen career was its mandatory retirement age of fifty-five.
Steele picked up a sheet giving the "lats and longs" -- the latitude and longitude -- for Storm King Mountain and an initial size-up of what they faced: "rugged, inaccessible terrain." Tailor-made for jumpers, Steele thought. The orders called for eight jumpers, one full planeload, plus a lead plane to act as "eye in the sky" and an air tanker with fire retardant, a red mud that slows flames.
Steele hoisted himself aboard the jumpers' plane, a light twin-engine affair, and took the copilot's seat. The jumpers filled the passenger area, stripped of its seats to accommodate them in their bulky jumpsuits. Aircraft J49 reported itself rolling for Storm King Mountain at 2:36 P.M.
Behind in quick succession came L64, the smaller lead plane, and T140, the air tanker, an outsize tail making it look like a lumbering balsa-wood glider. The call letters stood for each airplane's function: J for jumper, L for lead plane and T for tanker.
The last was aloft by 2:44 P.M.
It almost seemed unfair to match this force against a couple of burning trees on Storm King Mountain; the three aircraft amounted to an armada of the skies, capable of striking several small fires, dropping as few as a pair of jumpers on each, or hitting a rolling blaze with everything they had. But it made good economic sense. Flying the air group cost in the thousands of dollars: An average Of $407 per hour for lead and light jumper planes, a day rate Of $1,500 to $2,800 for air tankers Plus $1,200 to $3,000 an hour extra for flying time. By comparison, a runaway fire can cost a million dollars a day.
The jumper plane rose from the desert floor, crossed the Book Cliffs and flew up the Colorado River Valley, following the same path as the storm the day before. Only ten minutes into the flight, Steele, watching out the window, saw smoke and flames rising from the valley floor. Afternoon winds fanned a sagebrush fire, unreported until now. A dark gray thundercloud lurked nearby, the probable cause of the blaze.
Steele radioed the location to the BLM dispatch office in Grand Junction. The fire was "two acres burning in sage" about seventeen miles east-northeast of Grand Junction, he reported, in a place called Colbert Flats. The jumper plane continued on to Storm King, fifty-five air miles away, leaving the flaming sagebrush behind.
The air squadron followed the river and crossed the bristling hump of the Grand Hogback, still on the storm's old path. Ahead Steele saw Storm King rising over the V marking the Colorado River. With the plane about five miles from target, Steele began a pre-jump check, matching the terrain against a map. His eyes darted from the map to the view: Something wasn't right; he could see neither smoke nor fire.
A dazzling sunlight could be masking the smoke at that distance, he thought, or the fire could be hidden in one of the gullies. At most the fire would amount to a "good deal," meaning a night of overtime, a quick knockout, and off to the next good deal.
Steele didn't like the look of the mountain, though, even with no fire in view. The ridges were sharp, the slopes precipitous and the oak and PJ thick as dog's hair. "How am I supposed to find a jump spot in that shit?" he asked himself.
Steele called Grand Junction to report their arrival but never got beyond his first words. Dispatch interrupted with new orders: A disembodied voice recited a fresh set of lats and longs that for Steele carried a familiar ring. He checked, and sure enough, they were the same ones he had called in for the sagebrush fire; they were to turn around and go back the nearly fifty-five miles they had come.
Steele felt, if anything, a sense of relief. If dispatch thought the sagebrush fire more important, that was fine with him.
Only forty minutes elapsed between the time Steele first reported the sagebrush fire and the time the smoke jumpers returned to fight it, but in those minutes the wind had shown what it could do, doubling and tripling the size of the blaze. Gusts of wind hammered the jump plane as Steele, clutching an overhead cable, made his way to the rear. He tossed out streamers and watched as they flattened, edges fluttering, in the wind.
The thundercloud turned and swept back toward the fire, trailing strands of moisture. Steele figured that in ten minutes it would be on top of them. He motioned the jumpers to get ready, and the first, tightening parachute straps one last time, stepped forward and clutched the edges of the open door.
"On final!" Steele shouted to the jumper, the sound all but lost in the hundred-mile-an-hour wind and engine roar.
"Get ready!" Steele shouted, and the jumper rocked back.
Steele slapped the jumper's shoulder, not trusting words, and the jumper dove forward, curling into a tuck. The sudden smack of air can bring an involuntary gasp, like the first breath of life. The jumper counted to five, and the parachute snapped open, jerking him erect.
ardThe jumpers went out in groups of two, called "sticks," the plane making a full circle, eating up more of the clock, for each stick. The thundercloud bore down; they had cargo yet to drop.
The pilot, Kevin Stalder, took the plane down to three hundred feet, and Steele began pushing and kicking out cardboard boxes filled with tools, food and drinking water. The low altitude and their small parachutes reduced drift, and the boxes smacked into the ground at the jump spot. As the plane made the last cargo pass, a distress call came over the radio: "We've got an injured jumper on the ground and need the emergency medical kit. Can you drop it?"
The thundercloud was close enough to darken the sky. Stalder, the pilot, figured he might squeak in one more run, with luck. He again dove to three hundred feet, and Steele readied the medical kit. As they swooped over the jump spot, the wind rocking the plane, Steele kicked it out the door.
"Hey, we got to get out of here!" Stalder called back on the intercom. "That's the last one."
The sagebrush fire spread to more than 160 acres by nightfall. Once the storm passed, a helicopter retrieved the injured jumper, who had a severely bruised heel from a bad landing. It took twenty-four hours and more than fifty firefighters -- the jumpers, three fire-engine crews, two ground crews and an air tanker -- to bring the sagebrush fire under control.
The jump plane, J49, never flew close enough to Storm King Mountain to attract the notice of a group watching the fire there from the highway. Winslow Robertson, the number-two fire official for the BLM in the district, had driven the ninety miles from Grand Junction and arrived about 3:00 P.M., meeting up with a fire-engine crew from Rifle, only twenty miles away, who were already on the scene.
Robertson was known among firefighters as something of a "wallflower," a supervisor reluctant to commit force early to keep fires small. This worked well enough during a normal season, when fires often burned themselves out. Asked later if he ever took a hands-on approach, Robertson seemed startled by the suggestion. "I've never gone out and kind of, you know, strong-armed the situation and changed things," Robertson told fire investigators.
By the time Robertson showed up, the Rifle engine foreman, Clay Fowler, had already radioed a size-up of the fire to BLM dispatch in Grand Junction. Fowler said the fire was burning in "rugged, inaccessible terrain," and he would keep a watch on it rather than hike in.
That description -- "rugged and inaccessible" -- quickly became a universal rationale for inaction, repeated without question in official reports and in public utterances of responsible officials, though it frustrated homeowners and many others at the time. Jo Temple, who made numerous calls to inquire why the fire wasn't being fought, said later, "I remember the dispatch lady telling me it's 'inaccessible and we can't do anything about it.' I thought, My God, one man with a shovel could have put it out the first day. The whole thing was not right."
Even with hindsight, the report of the official fire investigation team, called the South Canyon Fire Investigation, flatly stated, "The fire was inaccessible." Asked about this, Lester K. Rosenkrance, who headed the investigation, acknowledged that "inaccessible" was a misstatement and should have been amended to "inaccessible by [fire] engine."
Storm King Mountain was steep and covered with brush, but it could be climbed. Elk hunters roamed it each fall; an old Jeep trail led up its north slope; firefighters eventually would hike up its eastern slope, not once but two days in a row; and in years to come, tourists in tennis shoes would follow a new path up its western slope by the hundreds and thousands.
The fire on Sunday, July 3, was a matter of inconsequence except in its potential. It smouldered in a tree or two; it burned a few clumps of pine needles, a bit of dead grass, a fallen limb. This was an enormous advantage for firefighters if they had fought it then, as required by BLM policy for the area.
"Right now we are in a situation with severe conditions," Lynda Boody, assistant district manager of support services for the BLM's Grand Junction District, had written top distri ct managers on June 14. Boody had overall administrative authority for fire operations, but deferred on matters of tactics and policy to Robert P. "Pete" Blume, the fire-management officer for the Grand Junction District. In the June 14 memo, Boody told the managers to attack, or "suppress," all fires rather than simply keep an eye on them.
"Weather has dictated Red Flag conditions for who knows how long," Boody wrote. "The fires we've had so far are burning into the night and are being exacerbated by high, dry winds. The point of this is that Pete [Blume] is inclined to take only suppression action while these conditions persist. That means we will not monitor fires but suppress them.
"Unless you have a reason, from now until the weather changes, the FMO [Blume, the fire-management officer] will take suppression action on all fires in this district. The bottom line is that we may be in for a long fire season this year."
The BLM also was required to spend as little money as possible fighting a fire. "Therefore," said a separate district policy memo, "we cannot place a fire in monitor status if the possibility is good that we will incur greater costs to suppress it at a later date." On July 3 and for several more days, the fire on Storm King would have cost a few thousand dollars to extinguish; by the time it actually burned out, it cost millions.
There was an additional policy specific to Storm King dictating immediate action. A "mandatory fire exclusion zone" had been established for portions of the mountain by the BLM's 1992 fire plan, the same one expressing skepticism about volunteer fire departments. All fires within this zone, drought or no drought, were to be fought on sight, on grounds they automatically threatened life and property, the highest priorities for fighting fire.
Storm King Mountain was surrounded on three sides by homes and other structures. In addition to Glenwood Springs to the east and Canyon Creek Estates to the west, a scattering of buildings lay to the south along the base of the mountain, including the BLM's local office in West Glenwood, an unincorporated community.
On July 3 the South Canyon fire burned in or just on the edge of the mandatory fire-exclusion zone. The South Canyon Fire Investigation says that the fire was inside the boundary. The BLM's Winslow Robertson later disputed this, saying that the fire on July 3 was just outside the zone. A map of the zone makes it appear that the ignition spot, Hell's Gate Point, is right on the boundary line. In any case, no one disagrees that the South Canyon fire later burned a substantial portion of the mandatory fire-exclusion zone and caused the evacuation of homes and businesses, including the BLM's West Glenwood office.
At the time Robertson took his first look at the fire, his boss, Pete Blume, believed that the Grand Junction District's firefighting capacity was virtually overwhelmed. Blume estimated that the district had forty fires burning at the same time, nearly half the average of seventy-nine for an entire year. Battling forty major fires simultaneously would have been a heroic if not impossible feat for six engine crews, the smoke jumpers at Walker Field and a handful of local crews, which was the most the BLM's district could count as its own. Blume later told fire investigators that he was spending his time at this point trying to find more crews and equipment.
"We couldn't get the number of air tankers we needed -- air tankers, helicopters, crews, all of those things," Blume said.
The investigator asked, "Are you saying things became unmanageable?"
Blume responded, "I'm reluctant to use 'unmanageable,' but we were certainly taxed to the very limit. We do not have an organization that is big enough to run at that level."
The South Canyon Fire Investigation supports Blume's view. "The above normal fire activity overtaxed a relatively small firefighting operation," the report states, and now "overtaxed" joins the company of "inaccessible" as a shorthand explanation for what went wrong.
But was the Grand Junction District truly the heroic victim portrayed by Blume, faced by an overpowering situation that excused throwing out standing orders to suppress all fires and making halfhearted efforts with small, difficult ones?
And if things were that bad, or even close to it, why did the district have so much trouble getting help?
A closer look uncovers a significantly different picture, that of a small fire organization overwhelmed by a handful of blazes, not forty; its sense of emergency blunted by the demands of an already long and severe fire season; and its ability to shout for help drowned out by its own petty bickering.
Of the fifteen new fires reported on the BLM's Grand Junction District on July 3, only two were larger than five acres. One of those was the sagebrush fire attacked by Steele and his smoke jumpers; the other spread to sixty acres, driven by afternoon winds, and was handled by two fire engines and one crew of firefighters.
Three others were less than five acres, requiring only limited attention. The remaining ten were minor, a collection of unverified sightings of smoke and small fires that wound up being monitored from a distance, often by neighboring landowners, or being handled by other agencies.
In addition to the fifteen new fires, there were twenty-three old or "carryover" fires on the district on July 3. That brings the total for that day to thirty-eight, which can be fairly rounded off to forty as Blume did. But of the twenty-three old fires, the BLM actively fought only two. The larger of those had burned an impressive sixteen hundred acres but by July 3 was in "demobilization phase," meaning it was under control and firefighters were being released for other work.
The smaller one, a fifty-acre blaze, had twenty-three firefighters with four engines working on it. There had been enough progress, though, that the July 3 daily report predicted the release of some firefighters by the next evening, July 4, an estimate that later proved correct.
The remaining twenty-one old fires required almost no BLM attention: Eleven were under watch, mostly by non-BLM personnel; seven were listed as dead or under control; and two were unverified reports of smoke. "No smoke reported," reads the summary for fire number V888, and "No smoke spotted" for V886. The summary for V883: "Dispatch received a report that the fire was acting up. Engine 674 and a Utah engine were dispatch [sic] to the area but could not located [sic] anything."
The summary for V891, the South Canyon fire, puts the size of the blaze on July 3 at two tenths of an acre. It notes that an engine crew was dispatched. "The fire was inaccessible and had low spread potential," the report says, picking up the "inaccessible" label.
Then a faint but audible note of skepticism slips in. "It was very visible to I-70 but was placed in monitor status," the daily report says. Preventing a public-relations nightmare may not be the best reason to fight fire, but it is common to try harder with fires in sight of towns and major highways, and the person writing the log apparently thought so, too.
The South Canyon fire, for its part, played an almost deliberate game of hide-and-seek. It smoked enough in its two-tree base to alarm motorists and nearby residents. But when the proper authorities showed up, it disappeared, first when the jumpers came in sight, and then a second time as Winslow Robertson and Clay Fowler watched through binoculars.
In late afternoon on July 3, the skies over Storm King darkened and a thunderstorm rolled in with the welcome scent of rain. This storm carried seventeen hundred lightning strikes, not as spectacular as the day before but enough to seed many new fires. Rain was a rare treat for Glenwood Springs, a center of the drought where no rain had fallen since June 22. Precipitation in the town had been less than half normal for the months of May and June, a total of 1.16 inches compared to an average Of 2.79 inches.
Robertson took a look at the clouds and decided to call it a day. He felt miffed that he had shown up at all; he drove to the fire, he said later, only because the Garfield County sheriffs office had "made it sound so extreme." He figured he had done all he could: dispatched an engine, conferred with the engine foreman and made the judgment that it would take too long to hike in. The fire, being on top of a ridge, looked as if it had nowhere to go.
"When I looked at it, it was so small," Robertson said later, sounding plaintive. "I didn't really think it was an issue."
Fowler stayed at the scene for another quarter of an hour. A few drops of rain began to fall, enough to tamp down flames. The smoke disappeared from Hell's Gate Point. Fowler got in his truck and drove off.
Copyright © 1999 by John N. Maclean
Fire on the Mountain
FIRE -- THE DEVASTATING FOREST FIRE THAT TOOK THE
LIVES OF FOURTEEN FIREFIGHTERS
In this acclaimed bestseller of investigative journalism, John N. Maclean chronicles the deadly 1994 Colorado forest fire that was wrongly identified at the outset as occurring in South Canyon. This misidentification was the first in a string of seemingly minor human errors that would be compounded into one of the greatest tragedies in the annals of firefighting as fourteen men and women firefighters -- experts in their field -- lost their lives battling the South Canyon blaze.
This stunning reconstruction of the fire and its aftermath, drawn from Maclean's exhaustive research and countless interviews, reveals fascinating insights into what went wrong, and how so many top-notch firefighters fell victim to nature at its most unforgiving. A page-turning adventure narrative brimming with action and intensity, Fire on the Mountain offers a powerful and indelible profile of a special breed of people who put their lives on the line as part of their daily jobs.
- Simon & Schuster Audio |
- ISBN 9780743547291 |
- October 1999