Guest column: Remembering elite firefighters killed in the line of fire

This fire related story begins decades before I was born in August of 1963. During the late 1940s-60s, my grandfather, the late Walter Gene Pond, became a supervisor of fire crews for the BIA, after he served four tours in the Phillipines during World War II. Thereafter, my father Ron Pond picked up the fire torch to become the first Indian Smokejumper out of McCall, Idaho. His fire detail spanned five seasons jumping into wildfires in the United States and Canada.
During the 1948 fire season, 17 smokejumpers perished in a fire called Man Gulch of Montana. This story ties together when 12 elite Smokejumpers and Hotshots were killed in Storm King Mountain, Colorado, July 6 of 1994. My father was long since retired until my brother, the late Mitch Pond, and I worked our way through the ranks of the U.S. Forest Service. Recently, my father and I traveled to Colorado to pay homage to those who lost their lives on Storm King Mountain; 27 years later, this tragic event left deep scars upon my family and our fire family. My mother, the late Janie Pond, made a request years go to travel to Storm King. She said to me, “Babe, you need to face your ghosts.” After we landed in Grand Junction, we surveyed the landscape. It was aired with sediment unknown to me. We jumped from mesa to mesa and up and down palisades. Once arriving in Glenwood Springs, we were overwhelmed by passing South Canyon. On July 6, once we step on to the trail head, it was as thought we were standing on hallowed ground. We wore our Indian regalia and sang our traditional Indian Waashat songs. We both spoke from the heart, words that we could never muster up to share with anyone before. My father realized it was as if a part of them was still there, in parts of our travel. It was as if we were in a cathedral, where the land parted from the base of the Colorado Rvier up into the sky.
There were two Indians fighting fire that day, a smokejumper named Rob Johnson out of McCall, Idaho, and Terri Ann Hagen, who served on the Prineville Inter-Agency Hotshots. When the news trickled out of the local radio station in Glenwood Springs, my crew was in Phoenix, Ariz. and Mitch was just coming off detail in Colorado. He then took detail in Montana. My mother and two brothers, Amos and the late Punky Pond, were holding steady on the home front. They heard that the fire fighters killed were from Oregon and Idaho. My mother stayed with my brother Amos and waited by the phone. Punky came to a conclusion that we were safe because my Hotshot crew was out of Washington and Mitch jumped out of Montana. It took me three days to find a phone to call mother, because the Forest Service needed to inform all family members. All of Region VI Wildland fire fighters were stretched thin that season. My brother Amos thought we had perished. Once I was finally able to make a collect call from Arizona, mother jumped up to answer. She was elated that it was me. My brother Punky boy howdy, raised heck with me for putting a scare into our mother.
By the end of that season, Dec. 3, 1994, it took everything out of us to grasp what was left inside. It was a menacing and tragic dance with Wildland fire. We lost 33 people. They served on airplanes, helicopters, tractors, and crew carriers. On October 4th that year, all of Region VI gathered for a memorial service in Prineville, Ore. The supervisors urged us to share our hopes and dreams. We spent valuable time together, being 20-man crews. We were a brotherhood. We found closure at Tom Shepard’s ranch. Our future in fire was questionable.