'Fire Chaser' Recalls Tragic Storm King Mountain Fire

Michelle Ryerson arrived at the fire two days before the fire claimed 15 firefighters in 1994.


July 03--Sunday is the 20th anniversary of the July 6, 1994, firefighting disaster on Storm King Mountain in Colorado that claimed the lives of nine Prineville Hotshots, three smokejumpers and two helitak firefighters. The Oregonian talked to some of the South Canyon fire survivors -- a hotshot, a smokejumper and a fire chaser -- about that day, how it changed their lives and how they've worked for the past two decades to make firefighting safer.

Michelle Ryerson: Fire chaser

By the time the South Canyon fire began to smolder and slowly creep through the volatile mix of brush and oak thickets on Storm King Mountain, Michelle Ryerson had been a firefighter for seven years.

The summer of 1994 saw Colorado -- and the stands of Gambel oak that proliferate in the foothills around Glenwood Springs -- desiccated by drought.

Ryerson had grown up in Colorado and was a squad leader for ground crews known as "fire chasers" for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management out of Grand Junction at the time.

20th Anniversary of South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain: Fire chaser survivor, Michelle Ryerson Michelle Ryerson was a fire crew squad leader for BLM firefighters in Colorado on the South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain. Twenty-years later, Ryerson is the national safety program manager for the BLM, setting safety policies to make sure all firefighters come home.

When she arrived July 4 on Storm King, Ryerson wasn't impressed. The fire looked inconspicuous, slowly backing down the slopes dotted with oak thickets and pinyon juniper trees.

Early the next day, as Ryerson and six firefighters clambered to the top of the mountain to establish a place for a helicopter to land, it was clear more help was needed.

On the afternoon of July 6 when the fire exploded, Ryerson said only a few of the key leaders were equipped with two-way radios that allowed them to talk to each other and with dispatchers and pilots in helicopters assigned to the fire.

Ryerson said she and her squad didn't know what was happening, especially on the fire's west side, where the winds were starting to build. She assumed those firefighters had reached safety by going down through the west drainage.

As the fire blew up, Ryerson was near the top ridge of the mountain and escaped with other firefighters down the east drainage after her crew boss told her on the radio to head down and she then hollered the message to whoever was nearby. The fire coming up at her was so hot she used her left hand to shield her face.

Ryerson today is the national fire safety program manager for the BLM at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

She's in charge of the safety and health of BLM wildland firefighters, establishing policies and coordinating with the federal government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to meet safety requirements.

"We try to go beyond the regulations, talk directly to firefighters," she said.

Mostly, she said, the job is about making sure firefighters understand why safety is important. "We ... make it personal for them," she said. "We want everyone to go home at the end of the day."

The safety culture now, Ryerson said, includes a much wider range of people having radios and getting a daily briefing that includes the latest on the fire, including weather forecasts.

More importantly, firefighters are trained to question leadership and speak up if they feel something isn't quite right.

"After the events of South Canyon and my involvement, it certainly put an emphasis on what I could do to prevent this from ever happening to other firefighters," Ryerson said. "That set me on my career path, my goal and passion."

-- Stuart Tomlinson

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