By Billie Stanton
Glenwood Springs (CO) – Flames crackling mere millimeters behind him, Eric Hipke clambered up the last steep stretch of a rugged mountainside engulfed by roiling fire.
Hipke was panting hard when he screamed and hurled himself over the ridge. He made it with five seconds to spare, investigators concluded later. The fire seared the backs of Hipke’s neck, arms, legs and the hands cupped over his ears.
The worst agony, though, was learning that 14 fellow firefighters perished behind him on Storm King Mountain that July 6, 1994, in Colorado’s South Canyon Fire.
Nearly 20 years later, Hipke’s burns have healed. His sorrow, however, persists.
Wildfire deaths of this magnitude had not occurred for 45 years, not since Montana’s Mann Gulch Fire killed 12 smokejumpers and a forest ranger on August 5, 1949.
The Colorado catastrophe signaled the need for critical changes, and many have been made.
The mountain today is studded with marble crosses, each laden with personal mementos, on the spots where the four women and 10 men died.
The Granite Mountain Hotshots of Prescott, Arizona, made the pilgrimage there two years ago to pay their respects, recalled Darrell Willis, wildland division chief for the Prescott Fire Department.
All but one of those hotshots died June 30 during the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, where shifting winds, canyon topography and an apparent lack of situational awareness eerily echoed the South Canyon tragedy.
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