- Associated Press - Saturday, July 5, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - Eric Hipke survived the South Canyon fire blowup, but just barely, running ahead of a towering wave of flames.

If he had stopped for just five seconds to open his fire shelter that July 6, 1994, afternoon, he wouldn’t have lived, investigators said.

By exhaling as he jumped away from the flames, he also avoided breathing in superheated air that would have killed him.

As it was, the 32-year-old veteran firefighter with the North Cascades Smokejumpers suffered burns on his arms, back, legs, hands and face. The skin on his arms was hanging off in sheets.

Hipke spent a month in the burn unit at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and another month as an outpatient, undergoing painful skin grafts and physical therapy.

“I was burned anywhere the Nomex fire-resistant clothing was tight to my body,” said Hipke, now 52 and a video production specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

The Colorado fire that nearly killed him claimed the lives of 14 firefighters, including nine of a 20-member crew of Prineville Hotshots from Oregon.

But less than two months later, Hipke was back on light duty at the White River ranger district in Enumclaw, Wash.

He began to work out, riding his bike every day still wearing pressure bandages while his burns healed.

By September, his doctor cleared him to jump again. A short time later, he and another smokejumper parachuted into wilderness near Crater Lake to put out a small lightning fire.

Hipke jumped fires for 21 years before he began using his video production degree to make fire training videos for the U.S. Forest Service.

For the past year, Hipke has spent nearly every working hour making a documentary about that day on Storm King Mountain.

He interviewed survivors and recreated his dramatic survival in the 82-minute “1994 South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain.”

The video is “the culmination of all my schooling and work experience. I meant it to fill the void between John Maclean’s book (“Fire on the Mountain: The True Story of the South Canyon Fire”) and the investigation reports, and to be accessible to firefighters and non-firefighters alike,” he said.

Like other survivors, Hipke said he hopes the lessons learned and new training methods instituted after South Canyon - giving all ground crew members radios, figuring human factors into the firefighting equation and better leadership - will prevent another tragedy.

“My hope is that after watching the video that if a firefighter ever finds himself in a similar situation that he’ll be able to draw from that knowledge and change things to a better outcome,” he said.


Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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