Fighting fire and memories

 

It's been almost 16 years since a firestorm ignited on Storm King Mountain in western Colorado, killing 14 firefighters, including my friend, Roger Roth. A lot can happen in 16 years. I've married and divorced. I've moved three times. My knees have turned cranky, my hair gone grayer.

Now I swing a pulaski beside men and women who were just shedding their diapers for big-kid pants back in July of 1994. They know about the South Canyon fire only from fire school, where it's told as a cautionary tale. They chew Red Man and roll their eyes at me, the fire grandma, when I urge them to slow down. They're enthusiastic and reckless in a way I can never be again. I'm sure they think I've lost my edge. I wonder that too, sometimes.

Before South Canyon, I loved everything about firefighting. I loved fire camp, that sprawling, noisy, instant city with its rows of tents and undercurrent of barely contained excitement. I loved marching into a summer-dry forest on some nameless mountain, digging line in an endless rhythm. I loved being part of a crew. After South Canyon, it was a love tempered with distrust and a lingering grief.

There's a memorial on Storm King, the place where the fire blew up. I've hiked the quad-burning trail that marks the old fire line. White crosses mark where 14 people fell. I usually sit up there for a while, waiting for something profound and meaningful to well up, but there are only the facts. A lightning burst, a subdivision at risk, bone-dry Gambel oak. A safety zone too far to reach. Death.

On Storm King Mountain, I lie on my back next to my friend's cross, watching clouds float by overhead. I think about the fires before and since. The day that South Canyon blew up, I was on another fire about 50 miles away. It was the kind I liked, just our crew and a couple of engines. We had gone 48 hours without sleep, but it looked like things were finally turning in our favor. The weather front came in, and we were pulled off the line. It was just another day, even though we'd dropped into a canyon, our safety zone far above us. We were lucky. The 14 firefighters on Storm King Mountain were not.

These days, I have an ambivalent relationship with fire. I wonder if we are doing more damage by putting fires out; perhaps the weather and topography can do a better job. It takes millions of dollars to douse a single fire; I think about the many ways that money could be better spent. I go out on fires less and less.

Someday, I'll give it up. I'll give my scuffed fire boots to the next girl, the one with bright eyes and a long ponytail. I'll unpack my red bag and hang it up in the fire cache. I'll forget the feel of a pulaski in my hand.

But I won't forget South Canyon. Since that tragedy, things have changed on the fire line.  In the old days, the crew bosses imparted what knowledge they thought appropriate. Still, it was their way or the highway.

"All I want to see are asses and elbows!" they shouted as we dug line, most of us unclear on tactics, blindly following directions. In those days, crews that turned down risky assignments faced repercussions that extended beyond that one fire. After South Canyon, it became the responsibility of every firefighter to pay attention, to ask questions, to be responsible. Anyone could speak up, and we were encouraged to do so. In my 20-some years of fighting fire, this is a good change.

That's the legacy of South Canyon. But sometimes it's not enough for me. I want people to remember who died there; to know who Roger was -- that he baked a mean tiramisu and could fix anything wrong with a car. His nickname, depending on who you asked, was either Pedro or Rummy, with interesting stories behind the choices. He had a cackling laugh that was infectious. He was vibrant and alive.

That's why I carry his memory with me on every fire, and why I tell stories about him to the rookies at night. I tell them the way it used to be before South Canyon, and how much easier our lives are today. Still, they roll their eyes, and after a while I give up and huddle back into my space blanket, waiting out the night. They never knew Roger, and they cannot fully understand the touchstone that was the deadly fire on July 6. But I see the same excitement in their eyes that shone in his. Maybe that's enough of a legacy for me.

Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Enterprise, Oregon.

lost friend
Rich
Rich
Jun 11, 2010 09:32 AM
Mary, I'm very sorry to hear about your tragic loss.
Please do not be discouraged by the lack of empathy from some of the rookies. There also will be those who will be touched by your stories, and that's what counts.
It's wonderful that you wrote this article and shared this experience with all of us. The best thing you can do for Roger, and yourself, is keep sharing these memories.
I wish you the best...
Storm King Fire
Mike Smith
Mike Smith
Jun 12, 2010 01:00 PM
Very well written. PLEASE keep telling the rookies what you have learned. If it resonates with one person, it will be worth it and might prevent another Storm King. Or Thirty Mile. Like aviation, firefighting is inherently dangerous. But it is especially unforgiving of arrogance, overconfidence and "we've gotten away with this before" statements.
Fighting fire and memories
Tracy
Tracy
Jun 12, 2010 08:06 PM
Mary, thanks for sharing your stories. I can relate on many levels. Being a woman fire fighter for 21 years now, I was also on another fire during the Storm King tragedy and being from Oregon felt a strong connection. And though I didnt know any of the Prinville shots personaly to be able to tell their stories in the personal way that you do, I have read every investigation report,every book, interview and tale that I can get ahold of, and have studied them intensly. I also encourage every one I know to do the same by passing on the books and baiting them into great discussions about what happened on that day. I feel that we owe it to the shots passed and those who survived, to learn all that we can and to not allow such a tragedy to occur again. Lately I have been questioning how much time that I have left on the fire lines and I can just hope that when my time ends I can still find ways to contribute to the continueing safety of those who fight after me. In a way reading your story gives me hope in that I too may be able to fulfill my need and my love of fighting fire by writing stories like yours and maybe, just maybe pass on my legacy. LOL!
firefighting
Rich McCrea
Rich McCrea
Jun 14, 2010 12:40 PM
The summer of 1994 was one of the longest I have ever been through. It all started in April in New Mexico and I ended up on my last fire in Sept. in Idaho near the Canadian border. I was not on South Canyon but have read all the books and reports I can find. How we could have another tragedy, so similar to Mann Gulch,is beyond me. We had so much more knowledge than we had in 1949 plus portable radios and helicopters and great weather reports. Then the Cramer fire came along in 2003..I was with a fire team in Leadore Idaho, some 50 miles south of the Cramer. We were in demobilization status lazing around Leadore High School. I had nothing to do as an FBAN but wait for the rest of our team to finish up, and all at the same time a type 3 team was struggling with the Cramer fire, and a huge drama was unfolding...why didn't they send me up there to help?..I will never understand...they did send one of our Operations Section Chiefs but it was to late, even for him to help. I am not sure I could have made any difference but at least they would have had a fire behavior forecast, and another set of eyes watching weather and fire behavior.
Fires and Memories
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon
Jun 15, 2010 05:52 PM
Arizona burns pretty regularly, sometimes taking out communities like Summerhaven, which lines a crease on Mt. Lemmon in the Catalinas. Dante's Inferno danced along the darkened ridgeline, wavering orange defining the mountain and the moment.

While no humans died on Mt. Lemmon, I question the wisdom of throwing down life to save structures. Which can be rebuilt faster, a house or a man or woman? Are we fighting fire to save life or insurance claims?

Just asking.


 
Mary's Memory
Carol Goularte
Carol Goularte
Jun 15, 2010 11:14 PM
Your memory is heartfelt and your words are pure. I too loved the fire challenge in my younger days and the power of being on a crew was strong. Stronger than anything I had experienced and breath taking. I relate and today my fire boots have become my parade boots. When I put them on I flash back to the prescribed burns, the many fires and laying low in the smoked filled valleys waiting for the mules to deliver food and water. My hat is off to all firefighters.
South Canyon
Michael Linehan
Michael Linehan
Jun 16, 2010 12:36 PM
Very good article, well written. Makes me think of what I was doing in '94. My former crew, the Zigzag Hotshots had just went to Colorado for their first off forest assignment after I had left the crew. When I first heard the news it was a long ten hours before I found out that Zigzag was on another fire, though the Prineville crew suffered the tragic loss. I have since hung up my pulaski, though I stil love fire camp, that sprawling, noisy, instant city with its rows of tents and undercurrent of barely contained excitement. Today I go in an overhead role in logistics. One of the best books on firefighting that I have read, is John McLean's "Fire on the Mountain". It is an accounting of the South Canyon Incident.
South Canyon Fire memories
Mary Kwart
Mary Kwart
Jun 16, 2010 07:03 PM
The Prineville Hotshots flew off my division on a fire in Sequoia National Forest to go to Colorado in July of 1994. I had met the women on the crew--a lot for those days. I was gratified. A week later they were dead at the South Canyon Fire. I made a pilgrimage to the site of the fatalities the next summer and left a beer and a rose at each cross. When I saw how close the firefighters were to the highway, it sickened me. It's time for way less heroics on fires, I thought. Why do we use firefighting, just as we do war, as a way to proove ourselves, as a coming of age ritual that we never seem to tire of or mature beyond. It is fatal and it is still going on.