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30 years later, survivors remember the Storm King 14, the fire’s legacy

Hikers can see the burn scar left by the South Canyon Fire from the top of the Storm King Fire Memorial Trail. The trail takes visitors along the same path used by firefighters in 1994.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Hikers can see the burn scar left by the South Canyon Fire from the top of the Storm King Fire Memorial Trail. The trail takes visitors along the same path used by firefighters in 1994.

This weekend marked the 30th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in Glenwood Springs.

14 wildland firefighters died while battling the fire, which lasted from July 4 to July 6, 1994. It’s one of the deadliest for firefighters in U.S. history.

It’s not difficult to get to where the fire took place. Just over 8 miles from downtown Glenwood Springs and right off Interstate 70, the Storm King Fire Memorial Trail takes hikers nearly 1,500 feet up in elevation to the site of the fire along the same route firefighters hiked 30 years ago to contain it.

“I'm 53 now. I was 23 when I was on the crew,” said Jose Luis Navarro. “And we said, ‘I swear to God, that trail gets longer every year.’ I don't know how you guys take the oxygen out of it. There's no oxygen up there. It's steeper and it's longer every year.”

The Storm King Memorial Trail is challenging on a good day, with over 1,500 feet in elevation gain. This sign near the beginning of the trail invites hikers to imagine what firefighters in 1994 had to hike in as they fought the South Canyon Fire.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
The Storm King Memorial Trail is challenging on a good day, with over 1,500 feet in elevation gain. This sign near the beginning of the trail invites hikers to imagine what firefighters in 1994 had to hike in as they fought the South Canyon Fire.

Navarro, who traveled to Colorado from Los Angeles, California, was a member of the 1994 Prineville Hotshots, a wildland fire crew from Oregon, called out to Glenwood Springs to fight the South Canyon Fire.

On July 6, after two days of several crews trying to contain the fire, nine of Navarro’s crewmates, along with five people from other crews, died as the fire overtook them.

“My roommate, Scott Blecha… Scott was in the Army,” Navarro recounted of one of his crewmates who died. “He graduated from OIT (Oregon Institute of Technology), he had just asked his girlfriend to marry him. He was just one of the toughest people I've ever met in my life. He was better than most people I know and he passed away.”

It’s something Navarro still carries with him.

“I don't know why they died, but I'm alive and I have to earn that every day,” he said.

An honor guard from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service stands at the Storm King 14 memorial in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs. Volunteers organized a memorial ceremony on June 6, 2024.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
An honor guard from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service stands at the Storm King 14 memorial in Two Rivers Park in Glenwood Springs. Volunteers organized a memorial ceremony on June 6, 2024.

In the last 30 years, there have been a lot of changes to wildland firefighting, many resulting from the fatalities in the South Canyon Fire.

Bryan Scholz was the assistant crew boss of the Prineville Hotshots in 1994, and went on to have a long career in fire, after the fact. One of those big changes, he said, is a standard fireline briefing for crews responding to an incident.

“And that was because, for the Prineville Hotshot crew, our briefing into Colorado and onto the South Canyon fire was pretty much nonexistent,” he said.

Now, there’s also a mandatory fire refresher course at the beginning of fire season, more rigorous training and accreditation for leadership, and standardized processes for debriefing at the beginning and end of work days. Scholz said another big change is how to refuse risk.

“How to turn down an assignment, how to renegotiate an assignment,” he said. “The standardized format presents a way for grown ups to talk to each other and talk things out, get on the same plane and make a different plan when the fire requires it.”

These procedures, Scholz said, are outlined in the Incident Response Pocket Guide, which federal firefighters carry on their person when on a fire.

Fire crews from across the country come to the Storm King Memorial Trail, the site of the South Canyon Fire, to learn about firefighting in a hands-on environment. Crews leave their stickers on the back side of the informational sign at the trailhead.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
Fire crews from across the country come to the Storm King Memorial Trail, the site of the South Canyon Fire, to learn about firefighting in a hands-on environment. Crews leave their stickers on the back side of the informational sign at the trailhead.

But some things haven’t changed in 30 years.

“It's easy to envision this group doing almost the same thing,” said Brendan O’Reilly, the current lead of the Prineville Hotshots. “You know, the chainsaws haven't changed, the hand tools haven't changed. So yeah, while we have cell phones and some different things, ultimately the work is still just the work.”

O’Reilly and the rest of his crew came to Glenwood Springs for the 30th anniversary of the South Canyon Fire.

He said another thing that hasn’t changed is the need for wildland firefighters, especially in the West. As O’Reilly points out, it’s especially evident in a town like Glenwood Springs.

“I mean, standing here, you know, we're looking at a series of interconnecting fire scars everywhere around town,” he said.

The view of I-70 and the Colorado River from the top of the Storm King Memorial Trail shows how close the South Canyon Fire was to destroying homes and infrastructure.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
The view of I-70 and the Colorado River from the top of the Storm King Memorial Trail shows how close the South Canyon Fire was to destroying homes and infrastructure.

And wildfires are only getting bigger, hotter, and more severe in the West.

“We've got people who need assistance, emotional and psychological assistance after some of these terrible fires,” said retired firefighter Bobbie Scopa. “We've got family members, who are bearing the brunt.”

Scopa is the secretary for the group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, which advocates for those employees in federal land management agencies.

The changes made as a result of the Storm King 14 have made wildland firefighting a much safer profession than it was 30 years ago. Scopa says the next step in progressing the field is to ensure federal firefighters have good, stable wages, so they can build long-term careers.

Minimum wage for most federal firefighters is about $15 an hour, thanks to temporary pay bumps approved in the last couple of years. The Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act is designed to make pay increases permanent, though it’s stalled since its introduction last year.

But there could be relief in other spending bills. Mike Simpson, a House Republican from Idaho, says $330 million in pay raises for federal firefighters will be included in the funding bill for the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies subcommittee—a bipartisan effort.

“The permanent pay fix included in this bill will improve firefighter recruitment and retention, which is absolutely necessary, and provide financial certainty to the men and women protecting our communities from catastrophic wildfires,” he said in a subcommittee meeting last month.

The Storm King Memorial Trail is a well-loved and well-used trail in Glenwood Springs. In the years following the South Canyon Fire, the trail was much more primitive and unmaintained.
Caroline Llanes
/
Aspen Public Radio
The Storm King Memorial Trail is a well-loved and well-used trail in Glenwood Springs. In the years following the South Canyon Fire, the trail was much more primitive and unmaintained.

Back in Glenwood Springs, the Storm King Memorial trail is still a popular hiking spot for locals, something survivors, like Jose Luis Navarro, appreciate.

“I remember the first year we were tripping over stumps… people did what they could,” he said, recalling earlier visits to the trail. “And just how well it's maintained, with so much love and care, and you see that in the community… it's really nice.”

Scholz said it’s a far cry from the sites of many other fire fatalities, which are often in places that are hard to get to, and hard to visit.

“I think it's just wonderful that the site of the fire… It's always got people up there,” he said. “There are always people up there running the trails, walking their dogs.”

It’s a comfort, he said, to know that the Storm King 14 are never alone.

Caroline Llanes is a general assignment reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering everything from local governments to public lands. Her work has been featured on NPR. Previously, she was an associate producer for WBUR’s Morning Edition in Boston.