Jim Carrier wrote this column for the Denver Post after 14 firefighters died in a blowup in the Canyon Creek, Colorado, wildfire, July 6.
The image that endures is that hillside, marked by charred trees
and bristle-like brush stuck in rusty-blue, nearly rose soil,
scarred in the center by a boot-scuffed line that became a trail of
There was something about it that seemed
familiar. The hillside strung with grave markers, crumpled, silver
space blankets that climbed like crosses on Golgotha toward a ridge
The writer Norman Maclean
jogged my memory: The rout of the 7th Cavalry at the Little Big
Horn. Up the slope away from the river, white marble markers say,
"U.S. soldier fell here."
Maclean saw the same
pattern in Montana's Mann Gulch where 12 firefighters died running
from a grass-fire blowup in 1949. Crosses now spot where they lay,
and a memorial stone honors the "heroic young men who lost their
lives in service of their country."
in Canyon Creek, the pattern re-emerges, along with the lingering
The national investigative team
will be looking for the obvious: a failed leader, slow response to
the lightning strike, ignorance of fuel moistures or cold-front
warnings, the hole (if any) in the safety net. We'd feel better if
they found a smoking gun.
I don't think there is
one in Canyon Creek. But there are many who pulled the
Begin a century ago, when fire was
turned from a farmer's ally into an enemy of the nation. With the
rise of industrial forestry, writes fire historian Stephen Pyne,
"firefighting became the moral equivalent of war."
After 1910, when 5 million acres burned and 85
firefighters died in the West, the nascent U.S. Forest Service grew
by fanning a conservation crusade that "found in forest fire a
worthy foe," says Pyne. Its paramilitary firefighting branch,
marching behind Smokey Bear, still runs on an open-ended budget
while money allocated for fire prevention is a shoestring. Putting
out fires drives the system.
The result has been
too little fire and too much fuel. The scrub oak, piûon and
juniper that lay on that rough chop west of Glenwood Springs have
not been allowed to burn for 60 to 80 years. Kept for wildlife,
watershed, recreation and the scenic vista along Interstate 70,
Canyon Creek was a tinderbox waiting to burn.
Enter the troops, young men and women whose dirty job over the
years "became improbably noble and even glamorous," Pyne writes. In
the leavings of the Glenwood disaster you can see it in the
half-staff flags, the call from the president, the riderless horses
for Oregon's Hot Shots, the evocation of patriotism in a greater
But what did they die for? Not for
Glenwood, or even Canyon Creek Estates, Bob Lazier's maligned
66-lot subdivision on 84 acres toward which the fire was leisurely
The "urban-wildland interface" is a
definite problem in Colorado, and homes selling for premium prices
adjacent to federal land do not pay the cost of the inevitable
firefighting. But that was not the reason for this
Only 11 homesites on the north are in
trees and the development has its own water system with hydrants,
which firefighters tapped. The fire puttered along for several
days, but Mike Mottice, area manager for the Bureau of Land
Management, said it was so far away from the houses, "to be honest,
it was not of significant concern" until the day the fire blew
The firefighters were there because the
BLM's prescription called for fire suppression as soon as
The Glenwood blowup was a unique
confluence of fire burning in light fuels, steep terrain, channels
for air movement, a hot afternoon and that sudden gust of fresh air
from a front. Temperatures climbed past 1,000 degrees and the walls
of flame climbed hundreds of feet.
In that death
zone the young team members, so full of swashbuckling pride, were
suddenly scared and alone. All the romance, all the guts and all
the patriotism vanished. Historian Pyne says the statistics are
grim. On average, 10 to 12 firefighters die on the job each decade,
"Burning to death
on a mountainside is dying at least three times," Maclean wrote in
Young Men and Fire.
considerably ahead of the fire, you reach the verge of death in
your boots and your legs; next, as you fail, you sink back in the
region of strange gases and red and blue darts where there is no
oxygen and here you die in your lungs; then you sink in prayer into
the main fire that consumes, and if you are a Catholic about all
that remains of you is your cross."
when the embers and emotions cool, someone should question the
"noble" cause in Colorado that became a trail of ashes.