A Fire Within: Ghost of Storm King in Raging Wildfire

A Fire Within: Ghost of Storm King in Raging Wildfire

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Michel Field knew she had little to worry about, but she worried anyway.

Six miles from home, a brush fire burned across a highway and a river, high up a canyon.

But she couldn’t forget eight years before, how winds whipped a remote brush fire on Storm King Mountain into a firestorm that killed 14 firefighters. It roared toward Glenwood Springs, threatening the West Glenwood neighborhood where she and her boyfriend had just broken ground for a new house.

That house became her home, the boyfriend her fiance. Fearing history would repeat itself, she drove to see the fire for herself. She brought with her Janice George – her mother-in-law-to-be, neighbor and friend.

A lot of smoke, they thought, but the fire was small.

It was around noon on Saturday, June 8. The fire, sparked by an underground coal fire, wasn’t unusual, and others like it hadn’t gotten far. But throughout the arid West, there was nothing usual about the fire conditions, and there would be nothing usual about the Coal Seam fire.

Bill Kight thought the blaze was routine. On standby at an interagency fire base in Rifle, the fire safety officer and archaeologist with the White River National Forest had fought fires for 23 years – long enough to know that creeping wildfires can become infernos. Kight had fought the Storm King blaze, which moved toward his West Glenwood home and forced his wife and two daughters to flee.
Kight phoned his wife. “Has it come over the ridge yet?” he asked. “Because when it does, that’s when you guys need to be out of there. Just like Storm King.”

There was a pause.

“It’s up over the ridge,” she said. “We’re leaving.”

In a matter of hours, winds pushed the flames to a half-acre, to a handful of acres, to burning across hillsides covered with explosive Gambel oak.
Helicopters dropped massive buckets of water, but high winds blew the water to nothing before it could reach flames. Swirling air currents drove away an air tanker ready to drop a load of scarlet slurry.

Too gusty for pilots. Too steep for firefighters. Too dangerous for residents.

Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri knew it was time to move out the residents in South Canyon.

The sides of Storm King Mountain were on fire – again. Interstate 70 was flanked by flame.

Dalessandri felt hollow. The fire was headed into West Glenwood.

Back home, resident Janice George saw smoke but no fire. She walked across her yard to Field’s house. Talking on the phone, Field stopped midsentence.

“What’s that man doing in my yard?” Field asked.

He was screaming at them to leave. Behind him, she saw flames leaping from her neighbor’s house – George’s childhood home.

“Oh my God!” she thought. “The fire’s here.”

George and her husband fled in their car with about half their pets, 100-foot flames arcing overhead.

Field grabbed her three dogs, then glanced back at her living room before leaving.

She drove away in smoke so thick she couldn’t see out the windshield.

Glenwood Springs firefighter Dave Reinhold hopped behind the wheel of Engine 51 and raced from West Glenwood’s fire station No. 1 into the maelstrom. It was like driving into night.

Reinhold had never seen a fire like this: The skies rained ash and hot embers. The flames kicked up their own winds, gusts that bent willow trees with hurricane force. Across the river, fire was razing Red Mountain, moving toward the heart of town.

When Engine 51 arrived, Storm King trailer park was lined with flames. The firefighters were forced to retreat. Dalessandri’s heart sank. The battle was raging, he thought, but the war already was lost.

While the command team headed downtown, some 25 engines from Glenwood and surrounding towns raced into the swirling flames, some rescuing homes, some rescuing other engines trapped by fire.

Returning defeated from the trailer park – three residences were lost – Engine 51 joined four others along a nearby street. West Glenwood Battalion Chief Bill Harding had devised a plan. Hooked up to fire hydrants, the engines formed a bulwark against the flames, sending a torrent of water to carve a line the flames wouldn’t cross. As the winds faded, more engines arrived, and they started to push the fire back.

To Kight, the blaze seemed to have a mind – and a spirit – of its own, intent on gobbling the town. “We’d probably be lucky if only half of West Glenwood is on fire,” he thought.

No one knew. With West Glenwood engulfed in a curtain of smoke and flame, even officials were unsure what still stood, and rumors swirled. The downtown Red Cross Shelter moved to higher ground. The downtown jail was evacuated.

Still, downtown oddly seemed safe. Residents sat in lawn chairs on the streets to watch the glow. When night fell, flames on the side of Red Mountain sparkled like a distant city.

With the flames at bay in West Glenwood, Kight headed out to see what was spared. He expected the worst. He dared not even think about his own home.

House after house, business after business, was dark and abandoned.

“A ghost town,” he thought.

But this ghost town was only temporarily abandoned. Businesses were unscathed. Most homes still stood. His own home escaped the flames – again. Officials had been warned of hundreds of burned homes. They would later count just 29.

George’s and Field’s houses were among them. Sunday morning, an interagency command team took over what had become the nation’s top-priority fire. An army of 700 firefighters arrived. Flames burned through snags of spruce and fir for weeks, singeing more than 12,000 acres.

Firefighters had expected deaths – of residents, of each another. There were none.

“Each fire has its own personality,” Kight thought. When Storm King burned, the fire killed, but did no damage. Eight years later, the Coal Seam fire did the reverse. “This one spared us the agony the last one dealt.”