« Return to this article

Know the West

Dear friends


Fires on the hillside

The town of Paonia, where High Country News has its office, decided not to set off fireworks July 4th - nature was already providing a spectacular display. Lightning without rain had turned tinder-dry juniper hillsides above the town into fast-moving blazes, some spouting flames up to 80 feet tall. Although firefighters and friends of threatened homeowners tried everything from shovels to slurry bombing the houses, fires burning through the diminutive trees burned three houses to the ground.

It looked like a war zone, said staffer Gretchen Nicholoff. Felix Belmont and his wife, Pauline, who lost their home, will rebuild it, but it will be hard to replace some of what they lost. In the rush to evacuate their home, Pauline left behind many of her paintings. And Felix says he can't believe he didn't scoop up his Rolodex, containing the telephone numbers of friends they left in New York City when they moved to Paonia in the 1970s. Felix, who is a mainstay of the local public radio station, KVNF, has more to worry about than just rebuilding his house. KVNF lost its main transmitter to the fire.

Jane McGarry and Chuck Behrensmeyer lost their home but feel fortunate they didn't lose their lives. They fled, along with friends and local fire department members, just seconds ahead of the flames.

High Country News was lucky. Four HCN staffers came close to losing their houses. But they were saved by luck, by firefighters on the ground and in the air, and by friends who showed up with chainsaws to fight the fire and with pickups to evacuate them if chainsaws and slurry bombers failed.

All talked about throwing possessions almost at random into garbage bags, and of looking down at their arms and finding them dead white from falling ash. In the aftermath of the fire, those whose homes had been threatened walked about dazed, for days. The conversations that followed the fires revolved around the unimportance of most possessions and the cause of the fires. Was it a freakish accident - the hottest, driest summer in memory - that caused old-growth juniper trees to burn? Or were the fires ecologically inevitable - a result of the invasion of trees into what had, in pre-fire suppression and livestock grazing days, been an open grassland maintained tree-free by frequent low-intensity grass fires?

Whatever the long-term origins of the fires, their short-term behavior was quixotic. Flames would lurch toward a house like a quickly moving pseudopod, and then, as the wind reversed direction, falter, halt, and roar off in another direction. When the fires were contained, thanks to crews of firefighters from elsewhere in the West, residents counted their blessings and losses.

Tragedy nearby

It was tragically different two days later, just over nearby McClure Pass, when 14 veteran firefighters were overtaken by fast-moving flames on Storm King Mountain, five miles from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Nine of the dead were from Oregon: Terri Hagen, 28; Tami Bickett, 25; Bonnie Holtby, 21; Jon Kelso, 27; Kathi Beck, 24; Scott Blecha, 27; Rob Johnson, 26; Doug Dunbar, 22, and Levi Brinkley, 22. Helitack pilot Richard Tyler, 33, was from Grand Junction, Colo.; Roger Roth, 30, and Jim Thrash, 44, were from Idaho. Rob Browning, 27, lived in South Carolina, and Don Mackey, 34, came from Montana.

The day he heard the news of their deaths, writer and activist Pat Ford wrote a eulogy for a fire fighter he had worked with on Idaho wilderness issues. His words appear below (in separate article titled "Jim Thrash: A solid man").