Wildfire survivor now helps others endure tragedy

Wildfire survivor now helps others endure tragedy


by Pat Dooris, KGW reporter


Posted on September 19, 2013 at 5:40 PM

Updated Thursday, Sep 19 at 7:04 PM

PORTLAND -- The mournful sound of bagpipes rang out in Salem Thursday at the Fallen Firefighter Memorial. The yearly gathering honors the men and women who have died in the line of duty.

Kim Lightley has heard the bagpipes far too often.

“We’re all feeling the same pain,” she said before the ceremony.

Her pain is never far away. Ninteen years ago, Lightley attacked fire on mountains with the Prineville Hotshots. In July of 1994, a routine looking fire blew up on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Lightley ran for her life and barely escaped. Fourteen others, including 9 of her friends, died.

Lightley ran away from the horror as soon as she could.

“I distanced myself from the fire world, from my fire fighting family after Storm King,” she said.

Overwhelmed by grief, she fled to a new life, getting married and becoming a chemist. She discovered she could not outrun her demons.

“You do a different career. You get married. You have kids and you try to mask it with day to day life and what’s amazing about the brain is it keeps those memories and it won’t let you forget,” she said.

Ten years after the disaster, the flashbacks began.

“The memories can pop up you know? The triggers, the flash backs of the actual event, or just the insurmountable grief that you’ve felt. You know your body keeps that and it comes out when you’re least expecting it,” said Lightley.

She’s found the roar of the ocean sounds disturbingly like a killer fire. The blue sky above her central Oregon home sometimes looks like Colorado.

In 2005, she went for help, discovered she had PTSD and began learning to live with her memories and feelings.

Now, she works with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation to help others going through the same thing.

This summer she went to Arizona to help survivors deal with the death of 19 firefighters.

“We’re not in each other’s boots we don’t know exactly what each other went through, however the feelings of loss and grief and unbelief and anger and whatever that comes with a fatality, you know, were all in it together,” she said.

She delivered a similar message at the Oregon, fallen fire fighters memorial today in Salem.

“I want you to check up on each other,” she told the gathered crowd.

And she wants them to know there is hope.

“The opposite of hope is despair. It’s been a terrible summer. We need to instill hope in these fire fighters that they can get through this summer. We can get through this,” she said.