GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. (AP/CBS4) — The deaths of 19 Hotshots in Arizona comes just before the anniversary of a similar tragedy in Colorado.
On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters were killed when they were trapped fighting a fire that blew up just west of Glenwood Springs on Storm King Mountain. A 50-acre fire erupted into a 2,000-acre firestorm and raced up a hillside, throwing up flames 100-feet-high. Some were able to survive by outrunning it over the ridge and others wrapped themselves in fireproof shelters.
Nine of the victims were members of a Prineville, Ore.-based Hotshot team — Kathi Walsleben Beck, 24, Tamera Jean Bickett, 25, Scott Alan Blecha, 27, Levi Brinkley, 22, Douglas Michael Dunbar, 22, Terri Ann Hagan, 28, Bonnie Jean Holtby, 21, Rob Johnson, 26, and Jon R. Kelso, 27. Three smokejumpers, Don Mackey, 34, Roger Roth, 30, and Jim Thrash, 44, who parachuted into the fire, and two helicopter crew members, Richard Kent Tyler, 33, and Robert E. Browning, Jr. ,27, also died.
“It’s horrific to have that many of your firefighting brethren fall, it’s just devastating. I don’t think it actually sinks in for a while,” Garfield County Fire Chief Gary Tilloston said.
Tillotson was just starting out his firefighting career two decades ago when a small fire caused by lightening blew up one afternoon.
“They got some really strong erratic winds and got caught in a bad place,” he said.
The fire spotted behind firefighters and spread at a rate of 9 feet per second.
“I was in the staging area when we got the news,” Tilloston said. “It was a historic event, tragic loss of life, and a lot of learning.”
An Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigation blamed the disaster on a “management failure.” The Bureau of Land Management reorganized its fire program as a result.
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“Everyone who has had wildland firefighting training since 1994 hears about Storm King,” Tilloston said.
The fire was started by lightning during a drought year with record heat. With firefighting resources stretched thin by blazes burning elsewhere, it burned for three days before 52 firefighters and helicopter crews were sent in to fight it.
Fourteen marble crosses bearing the firefighters’ names now stand on the mountain at the end of a hiking trail built in their honor. It was designed with a steep grade and left rugged to give visitors a better idea of what firefighters went through that day.
Tilloston says the news from Arizona is shocking.
“I saw it on the news and I saw 19 people and I thought, ‘Oh my God that’s just horrible,” he said. “We all feel the loss, but I reached out to the chief in Prescott earlier this morning. I can imagine what they’re going through, but I want to reach out.”
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