Paying respects at Storm King
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS ” A cool shower kept the lush underbrush green and damp on Storm King Mountain Sunday morning.
Countless twisted charcoal sculptures poked through the healthy oak and junipers ” ghostly reminders of the 14 brave souls who were overcome by the Storm King Fire on the mountain 14 years ago.
A hike to the top, past the observation area where the trail forks to the memorials, revealed a lone, external-frame backpack, stuffed to the hilt. There was a jacket, shirt and a little sleeping gear ” enough for 61-year-old Gunner Dambro of Cheyenne, Wyo., making his annual trip to the infamous mountain in South Canyon, outside of Glenwood Springs.
Some years, he has made the trip more than once. And he does it for one reason ” to remember.
“I was worried that no one would come,” Dambro said.
Then he shrugged his shoulders.
“But, someone will come,” he said.
Ken and Kathy Brinkley dread the Fourth of July holiday.
At one time, the Brinkleys had four sons in the fire service in one fashion or another. Two still are.
Now, the Brinkleys’ son, Joe, a smoke jumper out of McCall, Idaho, is fighting the wildfires in California. And it brings the fears of Storm King close to home once again.
“We dread this weekend for obvious reasons,” Ken said.
It’s easy to understand his heartache. This is the first year since his son, 22-year-old Levi Brinkley, died on Storm King that Ken hasn’t made it back to the mountain.
“I feel like I am not showing them the respect they deserve,” Brinkley lamented in an e-mail.
Brinkley wanted to be here, to show his son that he hasn’t forgotten ” that people still remember. But the situation with Joe and the high cost of fuel, he said, kept him away. Brinkley plans to return next year, though, for the 15th anniversary of the tragedy.
“We do plan on being in Glenwood Springs next year. I wanted to be there this year,” he said.
Instead, he hoped someone was on the mountain Sunday who would take time to say a prayer for Levi.
Dambro was there.
Dambro drove from Cheyenne Saturday after his shift ended at the Post Office in Laramie. He camped near the spot where the Storm King 14 perished.
Though he didn’t know any of the fallen firefighters personally, Dambro, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, was called to the mountain on the first anniversary of the deadly fire. He’s made it back every year since, but doesn’t like to make the hike up and back in a single day anymore. He’s getting older, and he doesn’t want to cheat those on the mountain out of any deserved honor.
“That’s the real reason I stay the night,” he explained. “It’s getting harder to come up and down in the same day.”
As he cleared some of the overgrowth from around one of the memorials, Dambro noticed seven yellow helmets, bobbing in unison, making their way down to the observation area on the other side of the drainage.
The group, from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit out of Rifle, broke for a moment, but quickly resumed their single-file formation and continued into the gulch below.
“It’s been a sort of tradition to make the hike,” said Todd Johnson with the fire management unit. “If the fire season allows it, we like to come up here on the anniversary if there aren’t a lot of other fires. It worked out well this year.”
Johnson works out of Boise, Idaho; he’s filling in at the fire management unit while other area crews are helping in California. It’s was his third hike up the steep terrain over the years. He doesn’t mind making the hike, even if he’s in full wildland fire gear.
“A lot of these guys haven’t been up here before, so we thought we would bring them up here while it’s quiet ” so they could look at it and get something from it,” Johnson said.
As they made their way to Storm King’s ridge, they were met by the lone stranger who thought he might not see any other visitors. Dambro and Johnson made quick acquaintance and discovered they had a mutal friend in Eric Hipke, a survivor of the Storm King Fire whom Dambro met during one of his prior trips to the site.
“It’s kind of one big family,” Johnson said of being a firefighter. “When there is an accident like that, it hits everybody, if it’s an individual close to someone or not.”
Like Dambro, Johnson didn’t know any of the Storm King 14, but he’s become close friends with Hipke in the years since.
For Johnson and Dambro, it’s not about knowing any of the names on the crosses on the mountain. It’s more about showing that someone still remembers ” that some will never forget.
“First of all, I do it out of respect,” Johnson said. “But it’s been 14 years now, and it’s nice to see people come up here and know that the 14 have not been forgotten.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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