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THE DAY THE SKY BURNED RED

This is it, Brad Haugh thought to himself, this is what running for your life is like.

He heard his black leather boots hitting the slope as he ran up it. He heard every breath, every heartbeat.

If you stumble, he thought, you're going to die.

If you trip, you're going to die.

The smoke all around him, tinted crimson by the afternoon sun, made him think of The Martian Chronicles, a book he'd read in high school.

You fool, he thought. "You're running for your life, and you're thinking about a goddamn book."

He felt the heat of the fire behind him, stronger every moment. It roared like the tornado he'd heard as a 4-year-old, back in Ohio, standing on his front porch.

Haugh wanted to turn and look at the forest fire. But then he thought of the Bible, of Lot's wife turning to salt when she stopped to look at Sodom burning.

"Too much Sunday school," he thought.

The air was getting hotter, breathing hurt. The ridgetop was just a few yards ahead. He lunged for it.

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Haugh and 48 other firefighters, caught on a burning slope of Storm King Mountain in Colorado, faced a terrible choice.

Lie down. Lie beneath a thin glass-foil tent, and try to hide under flames a hundred feet high.

Or run. Run up a slope so steep in places you can touch it while you're standing straight up on it.

They belonged to special units with proud histories: the Smokejumpers, who have been parachuting onto forest fires for 56 years; the helicopter-based Helitack; and the ground attack specialists, the Hotshots.

Survivors and families of the dead will gather this week on Storm King, on the first anniversary of the fire. They'll see the blue lupine, wheatgrass and sage growing between the burned trunks. They'll see the 14 granite crosses placed where the bodies were found.

And they'll think back, to the day when the driving ash from the burning pinyon juniper and Gambel oak made the whole world smell like a fireplace.

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Brad Haugh's oddly humorous run for his life began at a tree about 200 feet below the mountain's main ridge, where he and a smokejumper named Kevin Erickson were taking pictures.

Erickson's brother-in-law, a smokejumper named Don Mackey, was with the last crew headed up the slope toward them. Erickson wanted a picture of Mackey advancing ahead of the fire so Mackey could show it to his grandchildren.

Their crew had spent the afternoon down the slope, cutting a fire line that they hoped would contain the fire. Instead, it was spreading.

It had just burned across a gulch 600 feet below. Now only an unburned slope separated them from the fire. The crews retreated at a quick walk, up the fire line to the ridge.

Lightning had started this fire four days earlier, on July 2. No one had rushed to put it out. Plenty of other fires in the area threatened buildings and people more directly than this one.

But now someone from a nearby sudivision had complained, and the fire was moving closer to Interstate 70. The decision was made to move on it.

None of the 50 firefighters who were ordered onto the slopes knew the National Weather Service had issued a "red flag" forecast for the afternoon of July 6 _ a warning of great wildfire danger, based on a complex reckoning of high winds, drought, low humidity, and dry trees and brush.

The cold front arriving that afternoon would bring wind gusts of 35 mph. The fire that had covered only 3 acres on the Fourth of July was about to "blow up," and consume 1,900 acres.

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Walking quickly up the slope toward Haugh and Erickson were 13 firefighters. Bringing up the rear was Erickson's brother-in-law, Don Mackey.

Mackey, who had just turned 34, recently ended a six-year marriage that his mother liked to say was "six years too long." The outdoors was a happier place for him. He liked to take his Winchester out after deer or elk.

Near the front of the column was 32-year-old Eric Hipke, who lived outside Seattle.

Hipke told people he was a smokejumper because the idea of stepping out of an airplane didn't scare him as much as a 40-hour-a-week job and a commute. His base pay was $10.10 an hour. A thousand hours of firefighting overtime in a busy summer meant no work in the winter. It meant the freedom to throw his skis into the back of his 1966 Dodge Dart station wagon, which he called "the Capsule," and head for the slopes.

Up at the tree, Haugh watched the firefighters move toward him. He was getting worried. It was obvious they didn't realize how strong the fire was growing behind them. It was behind a ridge that blocked their vision.

"Hey kids, let's pick up the pace and get the hell out of here," he shouted down at them.

The first of them, James Thrash, reached Haugh and Erickson. Was this a good spot to set up his fire shelter, Thrash asked.

The shelter is a last resort. A small tent made of aluminum foil bonded to fiberglass, it's supposed to reflect most of the radiant heat of a fire and provide a small supply of breathable air. Some firefighters call it their "Shake & Bake."

Haugh thought the fire was too strong for sheltering. He told Thrash they had to make it over the ridge.

Just then Haugh saw an explosion. Flames at least 50 feet high roiled the air, about 150 feet down the mountain. Without a word Haugh pivoted and scrambled up the slope. It did not occur to him to stay and argue with Thrash. This, he thought, is a run for your life situation.

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Eric Hipke had been second or third in the column. He couldn't believe it when he pulled up alongside Thrash and heard him say the word shelter.

Hipke didn't trust fire shelters. He had watched the training videos, where the demonstrators spent several minutes digging a nice dirt base and setting everything up just so. If I had enough time to do all that, Hipke figured, I'd have enough time to run for it.

Hipke heard Erickson farther up the slope, yelling for people to drop everything and run. He didn't see the flames. Just heard the roar. It sounded the way he imagined a tidal wave would. He put 50 feet between himself and the rest of the crew.

Now when Hipke looked back he could see the flames. They were zipping through the top of the Gambel oak brush like it was gasoline. The sight gave him an extra shot of adrenaline.

He put up his hands to cover his face, his ears. They felt like they were burning. He pulled out his fire shelter, to hold behind him as a shield while he ran.

He was about 15 feet from the top of the ridge when a blast of hot air knocked him down. He yelled as he fell.

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Moments ahead of Hipke, Haugh cleared the ridgetop. His thoughts had drifted from the Bible to the lousy time he'd run the 50-yard dash in eighth grade gym class.

I'm doing pretty good now, he thought.

He hopped down the back slope, skidding downhill for 150 yards. He turned and looked.

Haugh saw a wave of fire, 150 feet tall, crest the ridgetop above him. The upper part of the flames continued to shoot into the air, climbing at the same angle as the slope. The bottom began rolling toward him.

"That thing is gonna roll downhill and get me," he thought.

He figured he was the only one who'd made it, but suddenly Erickson was there in front of him. They heard a rustling in the cheat grass behind them.

Eric Hipke came stumbling out. His head was smoking. The skin of his hands was hanging down. His expression was calm. To Haugh, it was a sight straight out of a Lon Chaney movie.

The three men ran down the slope. Haugh and Erickson poured canteen water on Hipke's head to stop the smoking. Haugh took extra T-shirts and bandannas from his pack, wet them, and wrapped Hipke's hands.

Haugh's radio was squawking, the voice of his commander calling for one of his squad mates, Michelle Ryerson. She didn't respond. Haugh shut off the radio. He didn't want to think about people in his squad being dead.

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Some of the smokejumpers who couldn't get away in time had deployed their shelters south of where Haugh and Hipke had fled.

When they finally ventured out, about two hours later, they saw something that didn't look like the surrounding ground. Smokejumper Tony Petrilli walked straight to it. It was a group of bodies, five of them.

He reported this on his radio, and was asked if medics were needed.

No, he told them, it was too late for that.

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The deputy coroner of Garfield County, Trey Holt, was at his desk in his funeral home seven miles down the road, still in his golf clothes. Out on the fifth hole that day, he had felt the wind change when the cold front came through. He had seen the ash blowing.

When he heard that 52 firefighters were missing, he said a prayer and waited for the phone to ring. It took only three minutes.

Do you have 52 body bags, the voice asked.

Holt suppressed the feeling of being overwhelmed by focusing on gathering materials _ body bags, video tape, flags and duct tape to mark the bodies. He felt scared. Of what, he wasn't sure.

Dispatch called back, and said all but 14 firefighters were accounted for.

At 10:15 the next morning, a helicopter delivered Holt, a photographer and a Helitack fighter to the mountaintop. They were the first ones up.

When he walked down to where the bodies were, Holt was struck by how profoundly quiet it was, serene and surreal. There's nothing left to burn up here, he thought.

He spotted an anthill, busy as could be. So odd, he thought. How could there be anything living up here.

None of the bodies was identifiable by sight. The one later identified as James Thrash was face down, a fire shelter blown up around his head and right shoulder, the foil partially melted. That meant temperatures between 1,150 and 1,200 degrees.

Don Mackey, who had sent other firefighters up the mountain to safety moments before the blowup, was found second-to-last of the 12 bodies down the slope. No shelter. He was in the classic emergency position _ face down, horizontal across the side of the mountain. His body was charred, there was soot in his lungs.

"I'd look at them," the coroner recalled. "I'd look at the slope. There was no way they could have outran it. One of the investigators said Carl Lewis couldn't have outrun this fire on flat ground."

Scattered about was an indecent mess of personal things: a Timex Triathalon watch, lids of Copenhagen, Ford and Toyota keys.

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Nine of the 14 dead were Hotshots stationed in Prineville, a city of 6,000 in central Oregon.

Two of the nine were from Prineville originally. Jon Kelso taught swimming. Terri Ann Hagen worked in the pro shop at the golf course. The others were drawn from surrounding towns. Lumber is the main industry there. When those jobs dry up, firefighting is about the only summer work left.

The Saturday night after the fire they held a memorial service at the high school football stadium. They played "The Dance," a Garth Brooks song that has become a sort of anthem for the dead Hotshots.

The federal investigations followed. For the families, they brought only more pain.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited federal land managers for "plain indifference" to firefighter safety _ for failing to inform them about the incoming winds and dangerous wildfire conditions.

The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management report agreed. But it also blamed a "can-do" attitude on the part of firefighters. To the people who loved them, that phrase sticks like grit in the mouth.

"When they said in their report that the firefighters were overzealous, that was absolutely an insult," said Don Mackey's mother, Nadine. "They always blame the person who was dead. That's why on the West Coast so many people are up in arms. It's a government that lies, that covers up."

She wants to sue the government, but she can't. The government is protected by sovereign immunity.

Every family of a dead firefighter got $127,000.

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The Forest Service estimated that, at its fastest, the fire climbed the slope at 15 to 18 mph. Estimates vary about how long the fire took to climb from the gulch to the top of the ridge. Kevin Erickson, who was standing at the tree, thought it took 30 seconds. The Forest Service figured it was more like two minutes.

Temperatures rose as high as 1,600 degrees, but it wasn't flames that killed the firefighters. Hot gases and smoke did.

Hipke believes the yell he let out when he was blown down saved his life. The blast of gas was 700 to 800 degrees, hot enough to burn the parts of the body where his fire-retardant clothing was tight _ the backs of his arms, his calves, his butt. But because he fell as he yelled, he drew his next breath close to the ground, where the air was cooler.

"I would have been Number 15, another name in the report," he said.

Hipke is still fighting the federal bureaucracy over how much he should be reimbursed for the personal property he lost in his backpack: a Sony Camcorder he used for documenting jumps, a Swiss Army knife, $200 cash. He asked for $2,200. The Department of Agriculture offered $163.96.

Weeks of painful medical treatment followed: surgery, scraping dead skin, grafts taken from the tops of his thighs. The Forest Service picked up his medical bills. But they're stalled on his claim for $8,800 in lost pay, to cover time in the hospital.

Hipke had been in the hospital a few days when, he says, a time keeper from the Forest Service paid a visit. He wanted to know, What time did Hipke reach the interstate the day of the blowup?

About 5:30, Hipke guessed.

And what time did you get to the hospital?

About 6:00.

Hipke says the time keeper told him he'd be paid for his time up until he reached the hospital.

" "After that you're off the clock,' " Hipke said he was told.

Incidents like that make Hipke think the government treats its employees like "meat with eyes . . . semi-sentient."

He says the firefighters should have been on the fire two days earlier. Or not at all.

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In his book Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean described how 13 smokejumpers died trying to outrace a fire in Mann Gulch, Mont., on Aug. 5, 1949.

Maclean wrote that a "blowup" can occur when a fire burns hot enough to consume all the oxygen around it. The trees and grass are heated above the ignition point, but without oxygen, they cannot burn.

When a change in the wind brings fresh air, the ignition is spontaneous and complete _ "something terrible," in Maclean's words.

Someone gave Hipke a copy of Maclean's book in the hospital. He tried to get through it, but . . .

"I'd read a paragraph, then realize I'd been thinking for 15 minutes," he said. "It'd bring everything back."

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At 22, Levi Brinkley was younger than all but one of the other dead firefighters. He was one of three triplets born to Kathy and Ken Brinkley of Burns, Ore.

Levi's two brothers were not altogether surprised to hear of his death. He lived on the edge _ skiing fast, bungee-jumping, skydiving.

"I think that's why they fought fire," Kathy Brinkley said. "The adrenaline rush. If they see smoke on a mountain, their eyes glaze over. They either love it or hate it."

Brad Haugh still loves it. So much so that he wants to fight fires full time now. He was part-time last July 6.

About two months ago Haugh got a tattoo on his right forearm. The design is the wildland firefighter's symbol for "no dead firefighters" _ a red bar and circle superimposed over a skull and crossbones. He wants to carry a message of safety everywhere.

He asks himself every day, how is it that he lived? He was close enough to Jim Thrash to see the concern in his face.

"Why did Jim Thrash leave a wife and two kids? I don't have kids. You can't beat yourself up asking why. It happened."

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This story was based on interviews with survivors of the fire, families and friends of the dead firefighters, and county and federal investigators. It also drew on the investigative reports of the U.S. Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management. Times researcher Barbara Hijek combed through a variety of sources to obtain information used in the interviews.

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