An angry, compassionate memorial to a mysterious tragedy

A new book reconstructs and analyzes all that led up to the deadly firestorm on Storm King Mountain where 14 firefighters died.

  • John N. Maclean

  • Book cover of "Fire on the Mountain"

 

In western Colorado, I stood alongside grieving family members as they stared down blackened slopes where 14 firefighters lost their footrace against death. We walked through the loose, red earth, all asking the same question: Why did well-trained men and women die here on Storm King Mountain, fighting a blaze that seemed so routine? How did a stubborn ground fire suddenly whip into a deadly firestorm?

Over five years later, the most complete answers have come with the publication of John N. Maclean's book Fire on the Mountain. The 1994 Storm King fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., was a fitting subject for him. His father, Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, also wrote the acclaimed Young Men and Fire, which reconstructed the 1949 Mann Gulch fire that killed 15 smokejumpers in Montana. A 30-year journalist with the Chicago Tribune, John Maclean helped prepare Young Men and Fire for print after his father's death.

The two blazes serve as grim bookends in the annals of wildland firefighting. They are eerily similar - young lives lost to a blow-up on steep terrain.

I was a rookie reporter at the Glenwood Post when the Storm King Mountain fire erupted. When the school bus of Oregon's Prineville Hot Shots arrived to knock down the fire, I didn't even know the mountain's name. I snapped photos and jotted down interviews as the crew, thrilled to be in Colorado for the first time, assembled their gear at a nearby subdivision. Looking at those photos now, I see their high spirits, their zeal, and also their innocence. The laughter that flowed so readily from their camaraderie is frozen in a moment when they were utterly unaware of what awaited them.

I came back that evening, but many of them did not. Prineville's crew of 20 men and women was cut by nine, and 14 firefighters were killed in all, making headlines across the country.

I thought about what happened that day for years. I would walk to the places the firefighters died; I spent a night camped on Hell's Gate Ridge, perhaps waiting for something to make it make sense.Yet the moments leading up to the tragedy always remained a mystery to me.

Now, Fire on the Mountain paints a vivid portrait. Assembling more than a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests and scores of interviews with survivors, investigators and family members, Maclean provides an intimate view of the fire line. He tells the story from the perspective of firefighters who were there, first walking from the advancing flames - some even turning to take pictures - before their retreat became a race up a mountainside. From firefighters wrestling with jammed chainsaws to stunned Hot Shots muttering the Lord's Prayer, Maclean's detail is captivating. He allows the reader to follow along the loose shale as the firefighters share jokes, sometimes rivalries, and finally, fear. In some cases, he takes the reader literally step by step in the retreat as the radio crackles, "Abandon the fire line." His attention to detail is what makes Fire on the Mountain difficult to put down.

He finds heroes and villains. He accuses the Bureau of Land Management of a series of bureaucratic errors that allowed the fire to became deadly. Resources were available to put out the fire early on, he argues, but officials failed to take appropriate steps, even though they knew the blaze had the potential to threaten homes and lives.

Maclean is likely right, yet I do not share his anger. The very nature of a tragedy is that something went wrong - dead wrong - often because of missteps too numerous to make it easy to pinpoint blame. No one would disagree that countless decisions made differently could have saved lives. But if fire managers should have been more cognizant of what that fire could do, none could have imagined what it would do.

Maclean's father faced a similar dilemma when writing about Mann Gulch. "No component any longer had any individual responsibility," he wrote, "for the simple reason that in a moment there were no individual components. Just conflagration. What was happening was passing beyond legality and morality and seemingly beyond the laws of nature, blown into a world where human values and seemingly natural laws no longer apply."

In such a world, it is hard to assign blame. I find more egregious the century of fire suppression on federal lands that allowed scrubby piûon and juniper, like that on Storm King, to grow into mountainsides of tinder waiting for a spark.

If I lack Maclean's anger, though, I do not fault his work. In the interest of full disclosure, photos of mine appear on the cover and inside of Fire on the Mountain. I don't profit from his sales, but I wish him many. Tragedies are quick to receive tabloid treatment, and Storm King has had its share. Maclean's scholarship is a welcome reprieve.

Enthusiasts of the elder Maclean will find that his passion - and compassion - live on in his son. They will not find his elegant prose. Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire was as much about a fire as it was an elegy by a dying man to the spirit of youth, to men "still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy." Fire on the Mountain is a work of investigative journalism, not a meditation.

But like the two tragedies themselves, both books stand on their own. Maclean honors the 14 men and women who died on Storm King - and those who survive them - by telling their tale and making their lives tangible. True to his father's legacy, Maclean's work is not just an investigation. It is a memorial.

David Frey is a former reporter and editor at The Glenwood Post, and a past HCN intern. He now reports for the Associated Press in Nashville, Tenn.

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