October 23, 2015
Today I hunted Mule Deer on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Climbing hard in the false dawn from the river below, I soon found myself enveloped in a gray, somber day, with light rain, low clouds, and misty vapors all around. It seemed a most appropriate collection of weather conditions for the moment at hand.
This is, however, not so much a story about big game hunting, as it is about, something else. I fully intended to kill a deer, but in the end, did not. Neither did I see a deer, and not one fresh track appeared in the mud within the view held tightly below the bill of my hat and hood.
Perhaps it was because the mulies were still tucked into cover, discouraged by the heavy rains of the last few days. Or perhaps it was because our usual snows had yet to appear in even the highest parts of the high country, and the deer had not yet migrated down to the lower elevations. Maybe, just maybe, it was just not the day to kill a deer.
But I came for other reasons too.
Fourteen fire fighters died on this mountain on July 6, 1994. Officially named the South Canyon Fire, it began with a lightning storm on July 2, and rapidly escalated from there. Fire crews were scrambling to catch up right from the start, and the town of Glenwood Springs was solidly in the crosshairs.
Residents prepared for the worst in terms of property damage and financial ruin, but no one could have predicted such a shocking course of events.
I remember exactly where I was sitting when the announcement of their deaths was relayed over the local radio. The impact of the news hit me like a sledge to the most vulnerable parts of my innards, so close to home, and not just because it had happened right down the road.
I was a fire lookout on a high peak in the Salmon River Wilderness of Idaho in the early 1980’s, and then after that an occasional firefighter as part of my duties with the U.S. Forest Service. I would like to think that I know just a little about wildfire, though I hate to imagine the panic and abject terror they must have felt as the flames overtook them.
Wildfire can put a fear in you like no other natural force on earth, and I have felt that fear firsthand. Fighting fires is an unnatural occupation, but one, nevertheless, that must be done. I would not be exaggerating to say that I have sweated and toiled alongside some of the most dedicated and indomitable people the planet has ever known. I became a far better person as a result.
Once, so many years ago, I called in a small lightning strike from my perch atop the mountain and then watched in utter amazement as a dozen smokejumpers hurled themselves out of a perfectly good airplane, only to land in a field of jumbled boulders and dead and dangerous snags for their troubles. They successfully contained the fire over a 24 hour period, without rest or sleep, and then humped their gear through snarled terrain to an exit point a few miles away. Those observations continue to influence my opinions on what it means to be “tough”.
Who would do that? Who would risk their lives to save oak brush and pinion and homes, often against impossible odds? Why did I do it?
That answer has never fully come to me, and it is far too easy to put myself in their boots. This could have been me. It might have been me, dying down in hot winds and flame, under some not so different circumstances. I feel for them. I grieve for them. They are my brothers, and sisters, who have left us behind far too soon.
Fire will have its way once it makes up its mind, and there is nothing to be done for it but to get out of its way. They did try, we know that they tried, but only nature and god knew their fate in advance. And though I cannot speak for them I would like to think that their soul’s may find some comfort in knowing that the South Canyon Fire and their ultimate sacrifice changed forever the way that wildfires are managed and fought.
Fire, in its infinite wisdom, consumes all that is presented before it. It does so without judgement, malice, or aforethought, no matter what we may believe. But life returns, and wildfire is also the great rejuvenator. It cleanses with impossible heat and complete conviction, and clears the way for new growth and replenished habitat in an endless circle of beginnings and endings.
In this case it created many hundreds of acres of mule deer winter range, and in the end, improved wildlife habitat for a multitude of creatures. It would seem far too small a compensation for so many human lives gone, but then, who am I to say? I am but one man, often so lost, in such a vast and unpredictable universe. Perhaps it is not for me to judge what is right and what is wrong, fair or unfair, nor to fully understand the true meaning of it all.
It took me twenty years to visit this place; to brace myself for the painful journey. I did not know them. I never met them, to my knowledge. But, I do feel them there, watching. I hope that they are not too sad, and that they do not miss this world so much. I pray that they feel some peace in knowing that they were doing some great things in the world, on that mountain of storm. I have no doubt that they never felt more alive, fighting for what they believed, in that wild and untamed country that they loved.
I know that there were hunter’s among the group, and I hope that they approved of my visit. I came to hunt deer, for myself, and for them. I came to honor the offering of kindred spirits, and bow my head in reverence. I hope that they were able to feel some of the joy that I feel when I hunt, a free man with a rifle on his shoulder and miles of unexplored territory ahead.
They remind us that life is precious, and short, and that any time spent hunting where there is still room left to roam is not to be taken for granted.
We will not forget.
May they rest in peace, with eagles overhead, and mule deer, and wild beings, and life, all around, forever.
“In storm and cloud and wind and sky, In heart and mind and hand and eyes, A bond still binds too strong to tell, All those who flew with those who fell”. – Anonymous. Found on the Plaque at The Storm King Memorial
“Time is the hunter of all men, and no one knows this better than we do. That knowledge gives us perspective, and direction. A hunter is never lost in this great big world, not in life, nor even in death… “- Michael Patrick McCarty
You can read more about the Storm King Fire and Other Fires Here
Below, are a few excerpts:
“For many of the specially trained crews that battle mountain wildfires in the American West, it was a blaze that made it more acceptable for firefighters to speak up or even decline assignments they consider too dangerous—once a rare occurrence that could result in a firing or ostracism in a profession that requires aggressive, type A personalities. No official report articulated that change, but among many firefighters it was an understood lesson of South Canyon.
The South Canyon blaze, which scorched 2,115 acres, accelerated technical advances in battling wildfires, from a new generation of fire shelters—small, protective “mummy” bags carried by firefighters that can be their defense of last resort from flames—to improved communications. “Immediately, we all had radios,” said one South Canyon survivor, Eric Hipke.
South Canyon also sparked more scrutiny of fire officials’ decision-making and strategies in battling deadly fires, and led to changes in the National Weather Service’s fire weather forecasting division, which doubled its number of fire weather forecasters and found ways to deliver up-to-the-minute weather information—including crucial details about wind, which can fuel a fire and its direction—to forecasters in the field. (Related: “Overwhelming Cause of California Wildfires: Humans.”)
After South Canyon, “incident meteorologists became rock stars,” said Chris Cuoco, the meteorologist whose accurate prediction of a dangerous weather shift during the South Canyon Fire never reached the firefighters on the mountain.
It’s widely accepted within the firefighting community that these and other lessons of the South Canyon Fire have saved lives during the past two decades. Even so, the dangers of fighting wildfires in the hot, dry summer remain real”.
From an article by By John N. Maclean
Posted by Michael Patrick McCarty