Apr 21st, 2005 - 21:10:55
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|Norm on Storm King Mountain Photo by Dakota|
Eight years and a day after the Storm King Mountain disaster of the South Canyon fire in 1994, I sneaked away from the helicopter base near Glenwood Springs, Colo., where I was working as a helicopter crewman on the Spring Creek/Coal Seam fire complex.
There is a little parking lot at the trailhead near the Canyon Creek exit off of Interstate 70 a few miles west of Glenwood Springs. Dakota, my cohort, and I sign the register in a metal box that is plastered with stickers of firefighting agencies and crews.
It is past noon, and the temperature is an honest 100 degrees. We pause in the patchy juniper shade as we ascend 700 feet in the first mile of switchback trail with steps of rock and wood.
At the top of the first ridge we stop and look down at the Colorado River and toy Harley Davidsons on the freeway below before we follow the now-level trail north a quarter-mile to the big bronze markers of the observation area. I notice the tracks of Vibram-soled boots in the trail dust. Many, many of them. Only wildland firefighters would wear heavy Vibrams to hike a trail. I suspect a lot of firefighters made the trek up the flank of Storm King the day before, on the July 6 anniversary of the disaster that took the lives of 14 firefighters, most of them from Oregon's own Prineville Hotshots.
Dakota and I study the interpretive signs that explain what happened on the steep ridge 250 yards as the crow flies to our front. He is from Lakeview, and I am from Lorane. I was fighting fire when he was riding his tricycle.
We zig and zag down the rugged ravine to start up the other side. Most non-firefighters can't really grasp the ruggedness of this piece of trail. My yellow shirt is soaked through. The trail going up the other side is very steep, and there is no shade. Some of the wooden steps have pulled loose from their rebar anchors.
My lungs strain as I struggle up the trail in the fierce heat and 6,500-foot elevation. Dakota pulls ahead on the braided trail system through the gamble oak and disappears. Eventually I struggle up the side of the ridge, with my worn Vibrams sliding in the red dirt. I pass through a final zig and zag and find myself standing below the lowest of a stick of 10 marble crosses that stretch almost to the top of the ridge. To my left, I see the top of Storm King Mountain, several thousand feet above me.
Each monument is next to a big rusty nail that officially marks where a firefighter died clutching a tinfoil fire shelter on the fire line they had constructed downhill to meet the fire. I notice that each cross is surrounded by a curious collection of bric-a-brac.
A pair of skis form an X over one cross. Notes written on write-in-the-rain notebook paper abound. Firefighter T-shirts and baseball caps with crew logo and individual fire dates are placed around each cross. Little American flags disintegrate in place from the bake-oven sun. A .338-caliber Winchester Magnum cartridge marks the cross of an elk hunter.
So close. The top cross is only about 50 feet from the top of the knife-edge ridge. If they had made it over the top, it would have been just another close call to joke about.
An old aluminum hard hat sits by one cross. It has been engraved with many lines of small, careful script. I pick it up to read, but there is something wrong with my eyes. It must be the heat and altitude. I am not prepared for the intense emotion.
I stand by Doug Dunbar's monument, somewhere in the middle of the line. I attended his memorial service in 1994. He lived up the river from me, but I never knew him. I may have stood behind him in some line in a fire camp. We both attended Southern Oregon State College, a decade or two apart.
I feel the need to leave something - sort of like at The Wall in D.C. I look in the zip compartment of my radio bra but find nothing. I remember I have last year's red card identifying me as a wildland firefighter, capable of operating a Probeye, commanding a squad of firefighters, running a chain saw and serving as a helicopter crewman.
I write something on the card, wrap it in plastic and weigh it down with a rock on the uphill side of Doug's cross. I put another rock from the kill zone in my pocket. There is a heap of coins on the top of each cross - probably left by firefighters who had not realized (like me) that they would want to leave some small token of their visit to this piece of the true cross for all firefighters.
Dakota watches me from the top of the ridge. There are other crosses in a "chimney" to the north, but we need to start back to the helibase. We take a few photographs and start down the gully. The gamble oak that was burnt eight years ago has resprouted at the base. The few junipers just died.
I start singing the firefighters' marching song, "We All Live in a Yellow Fire Shirt" (to the tune of "Yellow Submarine"). Dakota joins in on the chorus. My voice breaks. I didn't know any of these people. It doesn't matter. We are all interchangeable, we are all replaceable. There is not another soul on Storm King Mountain.
Copyright 2002 by Norm Maxwell.
This article first appeared in the July 18, 2002 Register-Guard.
Mr. Maxwell of Lorane, Oregon is a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management during fire season, primarily as a helicopter crewman. He also is a rural preservation activist and co-president of Lane County Land Watch.
Visit the series of WxNW.org articles regarding The Battle of Fire Road by Norm Maxwell, a victory for lawful land use in Lane County. Norm and friends made the big guys play by the rules, by gum!
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