While en route to carefree Carbondale, Colorado I decided to drive a few bonus miles to the South Canyon Fire Memorial Trail. This seemed to be a fitting hike with the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend. I dialed up John (another retired firefighter) and invited him along.
"John, if you've never been there, it's a must see for anyone who's ever fought fire."
That was all I needed to say. John and his wife Sue would meet me at the trailhead.
While I was following the sun west on Interstate 70, I thought back to the first forest fire I fought in 1976. I was fresh out of Forestry School and had scored a summer gig in the Bighorn National Forest of north-central Wyoming. My District Ranger, Roger Williams was a tightwad character out of Joseph Heller's classic novel "Catch 22." His office was festooned with U.S. Forest Service awards for thriftiness with the government's money. One of his cost-cutting strategies was NOT sending his seasonal employees to any forest firefighting training classes. In his mind's eye the Public's money was better spent on the crews performing their hired duties only.
He was rolling the dice on the chance of a fire rising within the Medicine Wheel District that season. In the dry summer of '76 Mother Nature tossed a Snake Eyes. An errant lightning bolt struck a Lodgepole Pine and sparked a fire. Reports from passing motorists made their way to Fire Dispatch. The local band of Rookies (us) were called out to battle the small blaze. It was late afternoon.
By the time this clueless crew arrived, the fire had spread. We grabbed a few firefighting tools and away we went. We had no idea on how to construct a rudimentary fire line. We knew even less about fire behavior or fire safety. I remember running up to a torching tree and heaving shovelfuls of dirt at the red stuff. That was stupid and dangerous.
Eventually Roger requested a squad of Smokejumpers from Missoula. He also shouted for a "few truckloads of Indians." His gamble on not sending us to fire training school wasn't paying dividends.
It was dusk by the time the Smokejumpers floated down from the sky. One jumper got tangled up in a tree. Flames were beginning to ascend that same tree. His Comrades went into rescue mode and interrupted a possible bad outcome. Later I was assigned to build fire line with those "A Team" forest fire fighters.
We were well into the graveyard shift when a large snag fell silently across the smoky fire line. The defunct tree bisected the distance between me and an adjacent firefighter. I overheard two professionals whisper, "That's just the way Murphy got it last year." It was then I realized, "Crap! A guy can get killed doing this work!" That bastard Roger Williams gambled with our young lives as well.
Back to the present: John and Sue met me at the trailhead. The parking lot was full with vehicles from the three major Federal Land Barons-the U.S Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. There were two empty buses from the Redding, California Hot-Shots too. Apparently we weren't the only ones paying our respects.
Up the memorial trail we went through the just budded dwarf scrub oak forest. Wild flowers were in bloom filling the steep hillsides with emerging life. It was all Emerald Island green.
We caught the California Hot-Shots at the killing field where the majority of the Storm King 14 had perished. There are now crosses commemorating the site.
The young Hot-Shots were decked out in their work attire. Fire fighting tools were clutched in their gloved hands. They wore heavy duty boots, Nomex fire resistant clothing and displayed serious no-nonsense expressions. Each one carried a full backpack. It was almost as if they arrived expecting to fight a rekindle.
One by one the Hot-Shots touched each stone edifice going from the bottom to the top. Some paused to whisper a prayer. One knelt reverently as she openly
wept. It was a very touching scene. John and I reminded them to "Be Safe!" as we patted a few backs.
This was my second visit to this sigh inducing memorial. My first blog goes into the details of the evolving catastrophe a little more.
On this visit, I left behind an offering. See last photo. I always got thirsty after fighting a fire.
I'm afraid scenes like this will repeat themselves over and over. Forest fires fall into the "Fog of War" category too often. There's too many unknown variables leading up to a perfect storm of death and disaster. It's inevitable when humans place themselves in the line of fire.
If you ever find yourself near Exit 109, and need to stretch your legs, I highly recommend this stop. It's an impact player of a hike.
Thanks Sue Palmer for allowing me the use of your photos.
Remember, only you can prevent forest fires,
Suggested readings: "Young Men and Fire" Norman Maclean
"Fire Season" Phillip Connors
"The Big Burn" Timothy Egan
"Fire on the Mountain" John N. Maclean