Residents remember Storm King fire 25 years later |

Residents remember Storm King fire 25 years later

Thomas Phippen
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Lynette Cerise still struggles with the memory of the firefighters who died 25 years ago in the fire on Storm King Mountain.

“I can understand a firefighter dying to save a person, but for them to die for a hillside, that affects me even more than them dying to save a human being,” Cerise said.

Cerise vividly remembers watching the fire from her Canyon Creek home 25 years ago.

She and her husband were one of the few who didn’t evacuate the area as the fire blew up after the Fourth of July holiday. They had a truck packed and ready to go, but stayed to moisten the roof of their house and their yard, and to help firefighters however they could.

“We thought we might be able to do something,” she said.

“We had a lot of firefighters in our yard that day, using our hoses to wash themselves off. We gave them coffee and water, too.”

When branches of the fire blew up late in the afternoon July 6, 1994, Cerise watched as the flames race up the hillside from her front yard. The flames, more than 100 feet high, engulfed 12 men and women who couldn’t outrun the blaze.

Two others perished after being trapped by a flanking fire in a rocky chute on the other side of the canyon.

‘The noise … was like a jet taking off’

The Storm King fire, officially known as the South Canyon Fire, started as one of more than 100 small dry-lightning fires on July 2, 1994.

There were other fires burning across the Rocky Mountains, and the Glenwood Springs fire wasn’t near many structures, so it was allowed to smolder for several days.

After a few days, a cold front, unanticipated high winds and the incendiary dry Gambel oak brush covering the hillside turned the fire into a tragedy that Glenwood Springs will likely never forget.

Smokejumpers and hotshot crews were called in from around the country, and on the evening of July 5 and into the July 6, they worked tirelessly to fight the blaze.

When the fire spotted in multiple directions around 4 p.m. July 6, some firefighters were able to survive in fire shelters. Others were not so lucky. The fire spread so quickly — rushing up the mountainside in less than a minute — that 12 could not set up their shelters quickly enough or outrun the wall of flames.

One surviving firefighter later told investigators that “the noise of the firestorm in the canyon was like a jet taking off.”

In 15 seconds, the fire traveled 150 yards, one survivor estimated. The investigators determined that the initial 12 who died simply did not have enough time to deploy their shelters. The other two who died, part of the Helitack crew, were inside fully deployed shelters.

The South Canyon Fire has been studied by emergency management experts since 1994. Firefighters have tried to use the tragedy as a lesson on being situationally aware, watching wind conditions, and knowing the type of fuel in the fire path.

For the 25th anniversary this year, the survivors and families of the victims are not hosting a big public event as they did for the 20th anniversary in 2014. Instead, there will be a somber hike up the Storm King Memorial Trail for the families.

Members of the community who live in the shadow of the scar and with the memory of the tragic day have their own traditions.

Cerise puts up purple ribbons as a vow to never forget the fire and its victims, and every five years she puts up the names of the 14 to commemorate their sacrifice.

“There’s probably a lot of people around that don’t know anything about the fire, but we’ll never forget,” Cerise said. “It still gives me goose bumps to this day.”