The tragic news from Arizona late Sunday, of 19 firefighters killed battling a wildfire, no doubt rekindles painful memories for many long-time Central Oregon residents – especially the tight-knit community of Prineville, nearly 19 years after 14 firefighters, including nine Prineville Hotshots, died in a fire on Colorado’s Storm King Mountain.
The elite group of Prineville firefighters were overrun and killed on July 6, 1994, four days after the South Canyon Fire was ignited by lightning near the base of Storm King Mountain, seven miles west of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
A total of 20 Prineville Hotshots had arrived earlier that day to help battle the growing blaze. That afternoon, a dry cold front passed through the area, kicking up winds and causing the fire to blow up, spotting well beyond the fire lines below the firefighters’ location. It raced uphill, and the firefighters were unable to outrun it.
Those killed that day included Prineville Hotshots Kathi Beck, Tamera Bickett, Scott Blecha, Levi Brinkley, Douglas Dunbar, Terri Haugen, Bonnie Holtby, Rob Johnson and John Kelso. The other victims were Missoula smokejumper Don Mackey, McCall smokejumper Roger Roth and Jim Thrash, and helitack firefighters Robert Browning Jr. and Richard Tyler.
A memorial trail stands along the path the firefighters hiked that day, and a memorial was dedicated in 1996 in Prineville’s Ochoco Creek Park – a peaceful, walk-through setting with plaques that show photos and the background of each fallen firefighter, and a statue dedicated to wildland fire crews past, present and future.
A yearly Prineville Hotshots memorial 5-K and 10-K run is held in Prineville, with all proceeds going to the Wildland Firefighters Foundation. This year’s race was held June 1st.
In the years since that tragedy, a variety of efforts have been made to improve firefighter training and safety -- for example, encouraging firefighters to speak up, if they feel they are possibly being led into harm's way, and improvements made to the foil-lined emergency fire shelters.
Still, firefighting -- in a city or on a forest wildfire -- remains a dangerous profession.
Even before Sunday's tragedy, there had been 43 firefighter fatalities reported so far in 2013, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. A total of 83 firefighters died last year while on duty.