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Saturday marks 25 years since 14 wildland firefighters were killed on Storm King Mountain

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Posted at 3:02 PM, Jul 06, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-06 17:02:35-04

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – Saturday will mark 25 years since 14 wildland firefighters from Oregon died battling a Colorado wildfire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs.

On July 6, 1994, about 50 firefighters were battling the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain when suddenly the winds shifted, creating 100-foot flame lengths within the existing burn area, and moving across steep areas on the west flank of the fire beneath the firefighters. Two minutes later, the fire reached the ridgeline and overtook 12 of the men and women fighting the blaze.

Two more firefighters were 0.3 miles away working at a helispot. They also tried to outrun the fire and were overcome.

There were no survivors.

A trail was built on Storm King Mountain as a tribute to the 14 firefighters that perished that day.

The Storm King Firefighters Memorial and how to get there

The trail starts near Interstate 70 about five miles west of Glenwood Springs. At the trailhead, hikers will find several signs explaining what went wrong on July 6, 1994 and the stories of the people who lost their lives that day.

The hike starts with a 1-mile trek to the observation point. The trail is quite steep at times, climbing about 700 vertical feet in one mile.

The trail is still as rugged and steep today as it was for the firefighters that day. There are stairs to help visitors in making the climb. But imagine making the climb with no stairs and carrying 30 to 60 pounds of gear during the hot summer months of July.

At the top of the rise, you’ll want to turn right where you’ll find an unmarked trail split. There, you’ll see trees covered in T-shirts, many from firefighters who’ve made the hike to remember those who died that day. There are also other items like caps, sunglasses, baseballs, gloves and scarves.

The high trail goes to an overlook, the low trail drops to the spots where the 12 smoke jumpers and hot shot firefighters were killed.

First, you'll come to the memorial of Scott Blecha, 27. Friends, family and even strangers have left binoculars, necklaces, a signal mirror, hats and other items.

Continue hiking down the steep trail to the place where five more lost their lives: Jim Thrash, Kathi Beck, Terri Hagan, Doug Dunbar and Roger Roth. Some were right next to each other when the fire swept over them, taking their lives.

The trail now turns dangerously steep. A few more steps this way and you'll find six more crosses honoring Tami Bickett, Levi Brinkley, Jon Kelso, Rob Johnson, Bonnie Holtby and Don Mackey. Among the mementos left at Brinkley's cross was a pair of skis.

At the very bottom of these memorials is a moving poem on a plaque (read it below).

A second memorial site

When you return to the main trail down, take the side trail 0.3 of a mile to the second memorial site. Two more firefighters had been working at a helispot here. They tried to outrun the fire but were overcome.

While a plaque honoring Richard Tyler and Robert Browning, Jr. sits on the trail, their crosses are actually in a nearby valley. It looks inaccessible. That's where these two men were running for their lives trying to escape the fire.

Poem remembering the lives lost during the South Canyon Fire

The plaque at the bottom of the memorial reads:

Do not stand on this mountain and weep.
We are not here, we do not sleep.
We are the thousand winds that blow.
We are the diamond glint on the snow.
We are the sunlite on ripened grain.
We are the tempered Autumn Rain.
When you awaken in the morning hush,
We are the swift up-lifting rush
of the quiet birds in circled flight.
We are the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand on this mountain and weep.
We are not here, we do not sleep.
-Author unknown

The Storm King Memorial Trail is off I-70 at exit 109/Canyon Creek. Take the frontage road east about 1 mile to the trailhead.

Additional reporting from Denver7's Deb Stanley.