This Memorial Day, Carolyn and I climbed the Storm King 14 trail, on Storm King Mountain, overlooking Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs, CO. The trail leads to the sites where 14 of America’s elite wildland firefighters – smokejumpers, hotshots and helitac crewmen – were overrun by an exploding wildfire on July 6, 1994. The hike isn’t particularly hard as Colorado ventures go, but it is sobering. It takes less than an hour to reach an overlook where visitors can visualize how a small, slow wildfire exploded across a gully to the slope where it trapped firefighters digging a line to contain it.
Hiking across the gully to the memorials on the steep slope, we looked over the hundreds of items that visiting firefighters have decorated the headstones. The crazed collection of torn t-shirts, hats, carabiners, children’s toys, bullets, axes, skis, coins and Native American crafts. From the lowest of the stone crosses marking where each of the smokejumpers and hotshots fell, we hiked up the slope to the ridgeline, keeping in mind that the fire ran 35-feet-per-second up the slope that we couldn’t imagine running up at all.
It didn’t surprise us that we only saw a handful of visitors during our two hikes up and down the mountain over the Memorial Day holiday – the Storm King 14 didn’t die in combat. But they are nonetheless casualties of another of America’s wars – one that won’t end anytime soon.