Thursday, July 11, 2013

A prayer for fire fighters; remembering the wildfires of 1994

The  tragedy in Yarnell, Arizona,  in which 19 hotshot firefighters were killed in a wildfire ,brought back some traumatic  memories of the hot summer of 1994 in Colorado. On July 6 fourteen young firefighters lost their lives near Glenwood Springs in the Storm King fire, formally named the South Canyon fire.  There were immediate impacts  and some long term ones. The tragedy of Storm King is  so similar to Yarnell’s, it gives me chills.
I did not witness the Storm King fire, but I was  close to another   wildfire that had erupted the same week a hundred miles away in southwestern Colorado that had consequences as well.. Firefighters in   the Storm King fire,  like the  ones in Yarnell , tried to escape a fast moving blaze by hunkering down in their protective blankets.    Inquiries and new procedures  followed Storm King  Those same new procedures should have saved the Yarnell victims, but something  went terribly wrong. Federal and state investigators have already announced they will  spend time to discover what happened and whether any procedures could be changed to avoid another tragedy like Yarnell.
 The Storm King fire’s  long term impact was  procedural and tactical.. There was an immediate impact, too, that changed  the strategy to battle the other wildfire.  On July 3,   wildfire broke out which nearly entered  the  town of Durango and gave me an eye opening dose of wildfire savvy. Among lessons learned  was that human power  was puny next to Mother Nature’s rage.  
Lightening struck the south side of a ridge fifteen miles west of Durango on July 3. Stiff winds from the west,  100 degree temperature  and  bone dry juniper  and scrub oak converged  to create a flaming holocaust of a crown fire..  In one day the  fire blew ten miles east,  nearly to the Animas River..  Had the wind shifted, coming  from the south instead, it could have jumped the ridge and taken out a large subdivision  to the north , and continued  across US 160   to our daughter’s home  in Durango West where I was, by chance, visiting.
The Black Ridge Fire, as it was named, burned mostly on Southern Ute Reservation land, but the wind blew steadily   toward Durango for nearly a week..  Parts of Durango were evacuated and   Durango West was  put on alert to prepare to evacuate.  .  During mornings  when the winds were calmer,  tankers and helicopters dumped retardant and water.  In the heat of the afternoons, fire and smoke  created a  horrifyingly awesome storm over the ridge.
With the Storm King fire fresh in fire commanders’ minds, nearly 1000 firefighters were dispatched to dig fire lines mostly night when the fire laid down.  Fortunately, only a few structures were in the fire’s path  so long as the fire was contained to the southern outskirts of Durango and on the south side of the ridge. After six days of  crossing our fingers   and avoiding a smoke choked Durango,   the 17,000 acre wildfire was declared under control.. It was on the 7th day  the wind shifted from the south, blowing toward the house, but the worst was  over and we were safe. 
Since then, the Utes have built a firebreak to prevent any future fires from crossing over the ridge to the canyon and the subdivisions as part of the national fire plan.
That same year we were also building our home in Winter Park on the edge of a  mountain ridge , which  explains why  our home is clad in stucco and brick, not in the shingles we had planned.
The front range fires last summer, the Black Forest fire this year, and the Yarnell tragedy have rekindled emotions I felt those 19 years ago  and I utter a prayer for the victims and the firefighters every time.I watch the news reports.  .

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