By Jayson Jacoby
When Willy Crippen heard that 19 Hotshot firefighters had died in an Arizona blaze his memory sent him almost two decades into the past and his destination, of all places, was a Denny's restaurant in Colorado.
He remembered sharing breakfast there one morning in July 1994 with members of the Prineville Hotshots.
Less than a day later, nine of those firefighters were dead.
They, along with five other firefighters, were killed fighting a blaze on Storm King Mountain.
That summer Crippen, now 51, was a member of the Redmond Hotshots.
With just 19 miles separating Redmond and Prineville, he couldn't help but be acquainted with the Prineville Hotshots.
The two crews traveled together to Colorado, although they were assigned to different fires.
"That was really hard," said Crippen, whose current job is fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman's Burnt-Powder Fire Zone, based in Baker City.
"What I remember is that it became so obvious how many lives each person touches, and how thousands of people were affected by that tragedy."
Tonight Crippen, along with Jody Prummer, superintendent of the Union Hotshots crew, based in La Grande, will fly from Boise to Arizona.
The pair will represent the Wallowa-Whitman at Tuesday's memorial for the 19 members of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots who died June 30 near Yarnell, Ariz.
Each of the nation's approximately 110 Hotshot crews will have a representative at the ceremony.
The Wallowa-Whitman has two Hotshot crews, both based in La Grande. Crippen will represent the La Grande Hotshots, whose members, including their superintendent, are working on a fire in Washington.
Crippen served for 11 years as a member of the La Grande Hotshots before taking his current job in Baker City.
Although Crippen didn't know the Prescott firefighters, he said the news of their deaths was no less traumatic than the disaster on Storm King Mountain.
"It's just overwhelming, how many people lost their lives in this terrible event," he said. "It's a big family, the firefighting community, and we've all suffered a huge loss."
Crippen said he has worked on fires in Arizona in areas with similar fuels, and in similar weather, to the situation near Yarnell in which the 19 Prescott Hotshots were overrun by flames as they huddled, to no avail, in their fire shelters.
"Out there things can change literally in seconds," Crippen said. "This time of the year, with thunderstorms, the winds can be erratic."
As was the case after the 14 firefighters died on Storm King Mountain, Crippen said he's confident that the Arizona tragedy will help fire officials refine safety procedures.
"It's our obligation to learn from tragic events like this and to try to make firefighting safer in the future," Crippen said.
But of course "safer" is a relative term in any context, with wildland firefighting ranking high on the hazardous scale.
"It's an inherently dangerous job," Crippen said. "There's no 100 percent guarantee of anything. I've struggled as a professional, and personally, with that question throughout my career."
He pointed out that the Prescott Hotshots are unusual in that they work for the fire department in that city, rather than for a federal agency as is typical with Hotshot crews.
(The Forest Service also has a Prescott Hotshot crew; the city crew is known as the Granite Mountain Hotshots.)
"They were local guys protecting a local resource," Crippen said. "I'm sure they were proud to be doing what they were doing."