Just outside of town here, signs of new life are sprouting on the charred sides of Storm King Mountain in this, the first spring since a wildfire killed 14 firefighters.
Small purple and yellow flowers dot the red dirt of the mountain, in contrast to the skeletons of burned trees.
This weekend, Bob and Nadine Mackey, parents of smokejumper Don Mackey, returned to the mountain for the first time since summer to help put up gray granite crosses on the spots where their son and 13 other firefighters died July 6.
“It was just something I had to do,” said Bob Mackey of Hamilton, Mont.
Friends and volunteers were with the Mackeys to erect the crosses. Smokejumper Rodgers Wright, a friend of Don Mackey’s, set up camp on the mountain with the elder Mackeys and friends. They’re staying until they finish erecting the crosses - a weeklong project.
“I’m not leaving until it’s done,” Wright said while digging one of the holes. “It’s kinda like a fire. You don’t leave until it’s out.”
Twelve of the memorial crosses will stand on a steep slope, 100 to 200 feet below the top of the ridge that would have meant safety for the firefighters climbing away from the wind-swept flames. The other two will be placed about a quarter-mile away in a gully where two helicopter firefighters were overcome.
A trail charted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is nearly done and will provide access to the sites from the Creek Canyon exit off Interstate 70, about 7 miles west of Glenwood. Sixty Air Force Academy cadets lined the trail Saturday after volunteering to work on the memorial.
The cadets spent hours carrying concrete and other supplies up the slope, building stairs, bordering the trail with rocks and creating an observation deck halfway to the crosses.
“It really makes you think about life and death,” said Cadet Shane Burks, 19, a native of Missouri, after looking at the 2,000 burned mountain acres. “It looks like hell.”
The trail on the 3.4-mile trail was designed at a steeper grade than a typical recreational slope so visitors will have a better idea what firefighters went through the day Storm King Mountain burst into flames, said Kathy Voth of the Bureau of Land Management.
A total of 49 smokejumpers, hotshot crew members and other ground crews were ordered into the valley to establish containment lines. But the fire unexpectedly “exploded,” sending crews fleeing for safety. With a wall of fire roaring across the valley at 30 feet per second, the firefighters had just minutes to climb over the ridge.
Some escaped by reaching the ridge or climbing into fire shelters; the others, who were exposed to 1,600-degree heat, didn’t.
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