On The Fire Line: Colorado Wildfire Academy Honors Their Own

On July 6, 1994 roughly 40 firefighters entered the South Canyon, near Glenwood Springs, Colorado to battle a wildfire that had been burning for nearly four days. Smokejumpers from Missoula, Montana joined 8 of their fellow jumpers who had parachuted in the day before. The Prineville Hotshots from Oregon were ferried in by helicopter and they met up with a crew of Colorado firefighters that had hiked in from Interstate 70 a mile or so below.

The fire was caused by lightning. On the morning of July 6th it covered nearly 100 acres. It was a creeping fire burning in duff and forest litter slowly spreading downhill in very steep terrain. It was burning in thick oak brush that made cutting a fire line very difficult and time consuming. The goal of the firefighters was to construct a containment line around the perimeter of the burning area. They had done this many times before.

At approximately 3 p.m. while eating lunch several firefighters observed what they thought was smoke coming from the canyon floor several hundred feet below them. Several crew members went to investigate the cause of the smoke while the remaining firefighters returned to their tasks. Unbeknown to the crews and their bosses embers had apparently rolled into the canyon starting a spot fire. Within the hour a cold front passed thru the area. It brought winds with gust of 50 miles per hour. Winds whipping thru the canyon created a fire storm. Flames began moving towards unsuspecting firefighters at a rate of 35 feet per second.

By the time firefighters realized what was taking place it was too late. As they tried to flee up steep hillsides the flames overtook them. In a matter of minutes 14 brave men and women perished. The South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain became the deadliest wildland fire in nearly a century.

The Colorado Wildfire Academy held their first annual training academy a year before the tragedy on Storm King Mountain. Over the following 10 years CWA has brought valuable training to more than 10,000 firefighters representing volunteer and career fire departments and personnel from local, state and federal agencies. Attendees from nearly every state and several countries including Canada, Mexico, Australia and Russia have spent as much as a week in classrooms and attending field sessions.

To commemorate the tenth year remembrance of the deadly fire on Storm King Mountain the Colorado Wildfire Academy elected to hold their academy within sight of the mountain. The towns of Glenwood Springs and Carbondale eagerly accepted co-hosting the weeklong academy. This area of Colorado has experienced more than its share of costly fires. In 2002, while CWA was being held in southern Colorado, the Coal Seam Fire raced into Glenwood Springs consuming an estimated 10,000 acres and destroying nearly 30 homes.

While the goal of the 2004 academy was to offer quality training to 1100 students, academy leaders also wanted to remember the 14 firefighters that had died in 1994. In addition to classes the academy presented a number of commemorative events.

Foremost on the academy's mind was to instill the need for safety on the fireline and the idea that even the most routine fire could easily turn tragic. Safety and lessons learned became a major part of the curriculum. On Thursday evening, June 10, firefighters joined local residents in Two Rivers Park, in Glenwood Springs. The park is the sight of a memorial erected by townspeople to honor those who died that day. Participants were treated to a BBQ and concert. Academy Staff, led by Wendy Fischer, Academy Director, presently two large quilts to the people of Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. The quilts were made from tee shirts worn by firefighters that displayed their department names or a fire.

The highlight of the week for many in attendance, including this author, was the chance to meet Eric Hipke. Hipke was one of the Missoula Smokejumpers who fought the fire on Storm King. He was with the group of twelve that died that day. He was the last person to escape the flames despite suffering serious injuries. Eric led numerous hikes on the mountain. It was his chilling and honest accounts of the events of that day that left a lasting, though haunting, impression on all of those in attendance. He described working in the thick underbrush and steep terrain. He told of his concerns and foreboding thoughts. He was eating lunch when his crew spotted the smoke below them. When everyone realized that they were in danger he spoke of how they attempted their retreat. At first there was no panic, and then as the heat and smoke became unbearable he described how his own survival instincts kicked in. Hipke managed to make it to the summit of a ridge while the twelve firefighters behind him perished. While he has returned to firefighting as a smokejumper Hipke made it clear the tremendous effect surviving the Storm King disaster has had on his life.

The Colorado Wildfire Academy completed a weeklong endeavor to increase quality training with the completion of more than 40 classes attended by nearly 1100 students. As the last of those in attendance left the Roaring Forks High School Sunday afternoon several academy leaders were overheard hoping that the upcoming wildfire season would be short and safe.

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