GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. – By the time Eric Hipke and the other firefighters turned to run, the fire on Storm King Mountain had swept below them and was roaring through shrubs as if they had been soaked in gasoline.
Glowing orange embers swirled around the desperate men and women as they scrambled uphill, thick smoke blocking the sun and coloring the steep slopes an eerie red. Hipke sped past them and scrambled for the safety of a ridge. He let out a yell as a blast of super hot air knocked him down, then picked himself up and escaped down a draw.
Later, as his scorched body was loaded onto a stretcher, Hipke saw gear from the firefighters he thought were right behind him.
“I looked at that and thought they took a different route,” he recalled. “I said ‘Thank God, they made it out.”‘
Hipke was wrong. Fourteen of his colleagues, including Don Mackey, 34, of Hamilton, Mont., died in the Storm King inferno 10 years ago Tuesday.
The disaster has changed the way thousands of wildland firefighters do business across the West and around the world. Poor tactics, miscommunication and a lack of air support all contributed to the deaths. But investigators discovered something else, a firefighting culture that may have prevented those who died from raising objections and refusing a dangerous assignment.
“Investigators felt that the ‘can do’ attitude did a part,” said Jim Cook, the training projects coordinator at the National Fire Operations Safety Office in Boise, Idaho. “That cut to the chase, because that’s a huge part of what we take pride in, doing the hard jobs.”
By July 6, 1994, decades of wildfire suppression had forced firefighters to learn how fire behaves in rough terrain with thick vegetation acting as seemingly endless fuel. They had hours of training learning how to avoid getting into trouble where a fire shelter, a lightweight, silver metallic tent, might be needed.
Yet 12 of 18 warning signs taught to all firefighters were either ignored or not recognized on Storm King, investigators found. Eight of 10 standard orders issued to ensure safety were not followed. The flames came so quickly that only one of the victims had time to crawl inside a fire shelter, to no avail.
Cook, who trains firefighters in leadership and decision making, said many in the group that day had misgivings about the assignment but really didn’t have a procedure to articulate it.
Hipke said part of what happened is that no one – veteran or newbie – wanted to look weak to the others by suggesting they should step back from the flames.
“You’ve got to look like you’re working,” he said. “‘You’re going to jump in and then go sit on a ridge?’ I guess it’s that sort of thing. It’s not good, but it’s a human nature kind of thing.”
He laughed sheepishly: “You want to look good for everybody else.”
Getting around that attitude is now stressed in training through a new type of class developed after the Storm King deaths. The so-called “L” classes for leadership are intended to shatter the fire line culture where no one wants to be the first to point out dangerous situations.
“When I started, you didn’t say anything,” said Jan Hendrick, an 18-year veteran who now helps write training manuals for firefighters. “The culture was that if you said something, you were showing weakness.”
Among the specific changes since the disaster is an added emphasis on dropping tools and heavy packs when trying to escape a fire, and making a sturdier fire shelter. Fire managers are also clarifying so-called safety and deployment zones to give crews a better chance at survival should things go bad.
Perhaps the biggest change is new training designed to avoid the same overconfidence that contributed to an experienced and knowledgeable crew from turning around before the fire started its run up the mountain.
“Prior to South Canyon, training was almost exclusively technically oriented,” Cook said. “What are good tactics, how does a fire burn. We considered that to be adequate.
“We’re now focusing on human behavior than focusing on just fire behavior,” he said.
Twenty-two firefighters have died in “burnovers” since 1994, including four who died near Winthrop, Wash., in 2001. The toll has fire managers scrambling to make sure the lessons from Storm King get passed down.
“From the timekeeper’s class to the basic firefighting class, questioning why we’re doing this or that is now part of it,” said Steve Ellis, who oversaw training for more than 1,100 firefighters in nearby Carbondale in early June.
“We’re teaching leaders to either accept somebody’s objection or explain their decision and then be able to move on with their business,” he said.
Some results have been promising.
At a fire near Republic, Wash., in 2001, a 20-person crew from Saguache, Colo., raised objections to an assignment deemed too dangerous. Chris Dupont and Erik Rodin were among those ordered into a basin filled with dead trees as a fire burned below them – a clear sign of danger.
“I told the squad boss, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea,”‘ said Dupont, who was rookie on that fire. Others in the crew agreed, including the squad boss. The crew was assigned another task.
Such disagreements now happen all the time on fires and are documented only when there is an unresolved conflict, trainers say.
“If anything, you’re congratulated for bringing it up because it makes you aware of dangerous situations,” Rodin said.