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Trying to understand a tragedy

Eben Harrell

Tragedy’s amphitheater can be smaller than you’d expect.On July 6, 1994, 14 firefighters died in a “blowup” in a gulch below Storm King Mountain five miles west of Glenwood Springs. The fire was so ferocious and so fast that many who died didn’t have time to deploy their fire shelters, which would have been useless anyway in such tremendous heat.Ten years later, Storm King seems shockingly small for the drama it once hosted, indistinguishable from hundreds of other canyons in the area. Visitors can walk to the gulch in sneakers and enjoy a restful afternoon in its shade. When the wind blows, the oak brush makes a pleasant rustling sound.In times of tragedy, of course, everything is different. Little things can suddenly become big as hell; the ordinary can suddenly becomes monstrous and an up-gulch breeze can turn to murder. Every once in a while, the universe decides to show us how small we are.I first became interested in the Storm King fire through Norman Maclean’s book “Young Men and Fire,” a deeply moving work about what happens when the title’s two halves close irrevocably upon one another. The book retells what happened in the Montana wilderness in 1949 when 13 crack smokejumpers died in a blowup in Mann Gulch on the Missouri River. Maclean’s work inspired his son John to write a book about the Storm King tragedy, “Fire on the Mountain,” which I also read and enjoyed. But it was the father’s book, haunting and protean like the fire it describes, that has always stayed with me. In “Young Men and Fire,” Maclean wrote that the Montana smokejumpers were young and elite and therefore didn’t think tragedy pertained to them. A few moments before they were swallowed by the conflagration, one of the smokejumpers was taking pictures of the flames, apparently finding them wondrous or beautiful.At Storm King, nearly 50 years later, it was almost the same. Moments before their deaths, the firefighters were cutting a fire line, entrenched in routine, unaware of inevitability surging around them. Several were elite firefighters; to them fire didn’t dare fight back.But like the constitution of a large flame – which fire experts say consists of millions of little fires burning simultaneously so as to seem like a “wall of flame”- tragedy is composed of many different and even unrelated details that surge together into something seemingly single and inevitable. Reports of high winds moving into the area weren’t relayed to the firefighters. Oak brush 8 feet high prevented them from spotting the fire’s true location. They never saw it coming.It was this detail that haunted me. I have traveled in my imagination to that gulch on Storm King Mountain numerous times: What must it have been like for the firemen the moment their fate suddenly became obvious, in the roaring semidarkness of the fire, just before the wall of flame came over them?At Storm King today, the U.S. Forest Service has maintained the original fire line the crew members were working on before they died. Visitors can scramble up the same path on which they died; small concrete crosses mark the exact spot where each firefighter fell.The firefighters who died in the Storm King fire were Hotshots and smokejumpers, some of the most highly skilled wildfire fighters in the world. Smokejumpers, who parachute onto fires from airplanes, have a 90 percent success rate controlling fires. They are the people who come as close as humanly possible to controlling nature. Smokejumpers joke that they don’t mind if they go to hell – they’ll have the fire out by morning.The path toward the ridge above the gulch – the only escape route for the firefighters – is so steep that visitors must climb on their hands and knees. Young men and women who made their living standing tall against fire probably crawled to their deaths. Struggling up the same slope 10 years later, it’s easy to sense what they must have been feeling. By the time they succumbed, it must have been all self-pity, a single question posed to the angry universe: “How can you let this happen to me?”For a few short minutes in the Storm King gulch, the world was all chaos. An informational sign on the trail reads that up-gulch winds advanced the fire at a rate of 35 feet per second. The photos taken after the fire show land scarred by some great rage, as if God chose this small patch of earth for all his wrath. The only thing standing in the ashes after the fire were a few charred trees, their splintered remains reaching to the sky like grotesque, imploring hands. As Norman Maclean wrote, catastrophes leave us with a feeling of moral bewilderment, a deeply unsettling mixture of incomprehension and outrage. The blackened landscape after the fire reflected the raw, burned-out emotions of those left in the fire’s wake. Ten years after the fire, things have settled down, and the land has been transformed. Families picnic on the ridge, admiring what is once again a pleasant view of benign hills rolling toward the Colorado river below. On the hillside, thick oak brush has begun to fill back in. The gulch is beginning to green. Life struggled, and ultimately won, in this small valley. The good sister of Maclean’s bewilderment, a feeling that still stems from confusion but is without its destabilizing nature, is the feeling of “wonder.” To stand at Storm King today, with 10 years’ perspective, is to stand in wonder at nature. Fire, after all, is double-natured; it can purify as well as destroy. In this way, the so-called “great blowup” that so tragically ended lives also wondrously started them. At Storm King, the universe reminds us of the tremendous forces that brought it into creation. For when we think of the dialectical attributes of fire, as deeply intertwined as the first explosive strands of our DNA, we are suddenly reminded of the original birth, the original “blowup,” when the debris of massive explosions gathered, collected and burst into life.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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