« Return to this article

Know the West

Why did 14 more have to die?


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 tears.

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 of resurrection.

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."

So again, in Canyon Creek, the pattern re-emerges, along with the lingering question, why?

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 trigger.

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 cause.

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 creeping.

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 firefight.

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 up.

The firefighters were there because the BLM's prescription called for fire suppression as soon as possible.

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, Pyne says.

"Burning to death on a mountainside is dying at least three times," Maclean wrote in Young Men and Fire.

"First, 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."

Someday, when the embers and emotions cool, someone should question the "noble" cause in Colorado that became a trail of ashes.