It was 20 years ago, but the wounds are still fresh for friends and family of the 14 firefighters, including two Natives, who died on July 6, 1994 while battling the fabled South Canyon fire in Colorado.
Also known as the Storm King fire for the mountain it scorched, the tragedy took the lives of Terri Hagen, Onondaga and Roger Roth, Oneida, both of them on the elite hotshot firefighting team that perished.
Today the site is marked by a memorial trail that ends in a shrine full of tributes, and on July 6, a commemorative ceremony was held there. Ute Sun Dance Chief Ken Frost conducted some of the opening ceremonies and also designed memorials for the two fallen Natives. The medicine wheel points in the Four Directions, and contains six metal eagle feathers that chime when caressed by the wind.
“Many native firefighters leave her tobacco ties when they come to see the fallen here,” Frost said via Facebook. “There is a trail of honor for many to walk. At bottom of trail are patches from many firefighting crews who leave patches as reminders of where they all came from."
The sad anniversary came just a year after the deaths of 19 firefighters in the Yarnell Hill fire outside Prescott, Arizona. On June 30, 2013, the Granite Mountain Hotshot team died under similar circumstances, when a wall of flames erupted and swept through their ranks too quickly for them to erect their emergency shelters. One member of the 20-person team was spared—he had been sent to act as lookout nearby.
The two incidents, separated by as many decades, nevertheless were eerily similar.
“Both fires were started by lightning, were not fought all-out at first, and threatened homes and towns,” wrote John N. Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire (William Morrow, 1999), in National Geographic in a recent story commemorating the 20th anniversary and drawing parallels between the two conflagrations. “Severe storms that triggered the fatal runs of both fires were accurately predicted, but with only minutes to spare. The crucial forecasts then ran into communication foul-ups and did not reach the vulnerable crews in time, if at all. The fatal blasts of each fire occurred at the worst time of day for fire: late afternoon on days with high temperatures, low humidity, and tricky winds.”
The Storm King fire, which burned 2,115 acres, led to numerous changes in firefighting practices and new technology, ranging from state-of-the-art fire shelters to better communications, Maclean wrote. Firefighting agencies nationwide took note at the time as well.
“Although these accidents were separated in time by 19 years, they are bound together by several tragic commonalities,” the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of federal agencies, said in a statement on June 6. “Both accidents were burnovers; both accidents resulted in multiple fatalities of highly trained, skilled, and experienced wildland firefighters; and both occurred during devastating wildfire seasons in which 34 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty.”
The Wildfire Coordinating Group designated June 30 through July 6 as a “Week to Remember, Reflect and Learn,” sponsoring tutorials and conducting memorials to both commemorate and move forward from the tragic events. Information and tributes to the fallen can be found at the South Canyon Fire 20th Anniversary website and the City of Prescott’s site under Remembering Our Fallen—One-Year Memorial. Coverage and fire safety videos are archived at Wildfiretoday.com.
A song written for the Storm King firefighters was recorded and posted on YouTube in March 2014.
Roth’s brother posted a moving tribute to the fallen firefighters as well.