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Saturday, July 03, 2004 - Page updated at 12:20 A.M.
By P. Solomon Banda
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. By the time Eric Hipke and the other firefighters turned to run, the fire on Storm King Mountain had swept below them and was roaring through shrubs as though they had been soaked in gasoline.
Glowing orange embers swirled around the desperate men and women as they scrambled uphill, thick smoke blocking the sun and coloring the steep slopes an eerie red. Hipke sped past them and scrambled for the safety of a ridge. He let out a yell as a blast of super-hot air knocked him down, then he picked himself up and escaped down a draw.
Later, as his scorched body was loaded onto a stretcher, Hipke saw gear from the firefighters he thought were right behind him.
"I looked at that and thought they took a different route," he recalled. "I said 'Thank God, they made it out.' "
Hipke was wrong. Ten years ago this Tuesday, 14 of his colleagues died at Storm King.
Poor tactics, miscommunication and a lack of air support all contributed to the deaths. But investigators discovered something else a firefighting culture that may have prevented those who died from raising objections and refusing a dangerous assignment.
"Investigators felt that the 'can do' attitude did a part," said Jim Cook, the training projects coordinator at the National Fire Operations Safety Office in Boise, Idaho. "That cut to the chase, because that's a huge part of what we take pride in, doing the hard jobs."
U.S. wildfire disasters date back more than two centuries and include tragedies such as the 1949 Mann Gulch fire near Helena, Mont., that killed 13 or the Rattlesnake blaze four years later that claimed 15 firefighters in Southern California. Fire managers responded with reviews and policy changes in how to fight flames so powerful they can change the weather and so unpredictable they can roar back through miles of burned-out terrain.
By July 6, 1994, decades of wildfire suppression had forced firefighters to learn how fire behaves in rough terrain with thick vegetation acting as seemingly endless fuel. They had hours of training learning how to avoid getting into trouble where a fire shelter a lightweight, silver metallic tent might be needed.
What happened here that day?
The lightning-sparked fire had been burning for three days when the Hotshot crew from Prineville, Ore., was sent in to dig a fire line on the flanks of Storm King. The team was young but not unusually so, ranging from 21-year-old Bonnie Holtby to Terri Hagen, who was 28.
Only federal crews were authorized to fight the fire, which now was stubbornly marching through the shrub oak and sending smoke into the sky above Glenwood Springs, five miles away.
The team was below a ridge when crews farther up the mountain began to see warning signs. The weather changed, winds whipping flames that now were burning below the group and threatening to sweep uphill.
The nine-member Hotshot crew turned toward safer ground, marching along a fire line uphill accompanied by Hipke and three other smokejumpers. The group paused to consider their options, but Hipke kept moving. A minute or two later, he was knocked to the ground.
By then, his 12 colleagues were dead or dying. The flames soon caught up with two more firefighters trying to reach a helicopter landing area and killed both, a half-mile from the others.
"There was no place to go," Bryan Scholz, a crew boss from Prineville, said hours after his crew died in the flames. "We kept going up the ridge, and it kept going up the ridge."
Thirty-five firefighters on the mountain that day survived.
Hipke recalls one of the most experienced firefighters in the group, 44-year-old smokejumper Jim Thrash of McCall, Idaho, raising a warning as the group began cutting oak on the steep slopes.
"He stops and says, 'Man, this is not a good idea,' " Hipke recalled recently as he led a group of firefighters to the site marked by 14 granite crosses, including one for Thrash.
Waving his badly scarred arms as the firefighters looked on, Hipke described how the fire line began looking more and more like a tunnel through tall shrubs.
"They all knew they were doing something wrong, but they kept on working," said Patrick Richardson, an 11-year firefighting veteran with Castle Rock Fire and Rescue. "It would have taken somebody incredibly strong to say, 'You know what, it's time to turn around.'
"I can't say I would have been the guy to do it," he said.
Hipke said part of what happened is that no one veteran or newbie wanted to look weak to the others.
"You've got to look like you're working," he said. " 'You're going to jump in and then go sit on a ridge?' I guess it's that sort of thing. It's not good, but it's a human-nature kind of thing.
"You want to look good for everybody else."
Getting around that attitude now is stressed in training through a new type of class developed after the Storm King deaths. The so-called "L" classes for leadership are intended to shatter the fire-line culture where no one wants to be the first to point out dangerous situations.
Among the specific changes since the disaster is an added emphasis on dropping tools and heavy packs when trying to escape a fire, and making a sturdier fire shelter.
Fire managers also are clarifying so-called safety and deployment zones to give crews a better chance at survival should things go bad.
Perhaps the biggest change is new training designed to avoid the same overconfidence that contributed to keeping an experienced and knowledgeable crew from turning around before the fire started its run up the mountain.
Have these lessons truly been learned? The results have been mixed.
Four firefighters in Washington state in 2001 and two firefighters in Idaho last year died in circumstances similar to Storm King.
Federal investigators said the Washington fire managers willfully disregarded employee safety, violated basic safety rules and ignored or disregarded 10 of the 18 warning signs for danger. The incident commander in the Idaho fire also violated standard orders, investigators said.
But at a fire near Republic, Wash., in 2001, a 20-person crew from Saguache, Colo., raised objections to an assignment deemed too dangerous.
Chris Dupont and Erik Rodin were among those ordered into a basin filled with dead trees as a fire burned below them a clear sign of danger. "I told the squad boss, 'I don't think this is a good idea,' " said Dupont, who was rookie on that fire. Others in the crew agreed, including the squad boss. The crew was assigned another task.
Such disagreements now happen all the time on fires and only are documented when there is an unresolved conflict, trainers say.
"If anything, you're congratulated for bringing it up because it makes you aware of dangerous situations," Rodin said.
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