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Storm King plus 20: Prineville Hotshots honor the fallen

By Kandra Kent
Published On: Jul 01 2014 11:33:00 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 01 2014 11:34:27 PM CDT

NewsChannel 21's Kandra Kent caught up the Prineville Hotshots as they prepare to visit the memorial where nine of their own tragically died in flames 20 years ago.

PRINEVILLE, Ore. -

It's the time of year wildland firefighters must be ready at a moment's notice, but on Tuesday, Prineville Hotshots weren't preparing for a wildfire. Instead, they were getting ready to visit the scar of one 1,000 miles away -- one with a painful connection to Central Oregon.

'I think it's important to remember what happened 20 years ago," Prineville Hotshot Superintendent Eric Miller said Tuesday.

Miller is talking about July 6, 1994, the day 14 lives were lost to an explosive wildfire on Colorado's Storm King Mountain. Nine of the them were Prineville Hotshots, a tragedy that rocked not just the tight-knit community but all of Central Oregon.

"It's really powerful to be on that hill after all the reading, researching and learning about it," Miller said. "Once you step foot on the ground, it really puts things into perspective."

Most of the Prineville crew today is too young to have fought the South Canyon Fire back then, and most didn't personally know anyone who died.

But that doesn't matter.

"It is a part of what this crew is about and where they come from," Miller said.

The entire crew will load up Wednesday morning and head to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. There they'll visit the memorial on Storm King, meet with the family members of those who died, and participate in a processional and ceremony.

"You see the crosses on the hill, and it's a very solemn, powerful experience," Miller said.

Miller also hopes his crew will take away an important lesson.

"There's a lot of people on the hill that day that didn't feel comfortable about the assignment, and nobody really wanted to speak up," Miller said. "I hope that we can get it across that if something is really bothering you, be the voice that speaks up."

Miller, who grew up in Prineville, has visited the memorial in the past, but hasn't been to any of the commemorative ceremonies. He said visiting the site on the anniversary holds special meaning.

"My first fire was 1994, when the Storm King fire happened," Miller said. "So it's kind of a full circle type of thing."

In the wake of tragedy, Prineville came together to build its own, touching walk-through memorial to the fallen Hotshots at Ochoco Creek Park.

Firefighters making their first trip to the site of the fire say they hope to put into perspective the stories they know well.

"It's going to be a lot more powerful for me than reading the books," Hotshot Natalie Kuntz said. "It's going to come to life."

The motto for the hotshots is "We Shall Not Forget." A couple months ago, the Prineville Hotshots added nine stars engraved with the names of the victims to their compound's memorial.

The wildland firefighters also honor the victims, no matter where the fires take them.

"The original logo is the coyote and the flames," Miller said, explaining the symbol representing the Prineville Hotshots. "The nine stars were added after South Canyon. It's been a part of the logo ever since, and it will be a part of the logo forever."

The scar on the hill is already healing, but the legacy will be carried forever.

"It's a commitment to the community here," Kuntz said.

Following Sunday's ceremony  Miller said, the crew will be ready to be called to a fire, wherever they are needed.

Jon Kelso, 27, of Prineville was one of the 14 who died that day. Tune in to NewsChannel 21 Wednesday night as Kelso's father remembers Jon's life and legacy.

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