For former wildland firefighter Tom Rambo, the memory is never far away.

For former wildland firefighter Tom Rambo, the memory is never far away.

"When there are those quiet moments, I sometimes think about it," he says. "It comes up throughout the year. It's always there."

A 1990 graduate of Crater High School, Rambo, 41, was a member of the elite Prineville Interagency Hotshots caught by a firestorm on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colo., on July 6, 1994.

The explosive fire killed nine of the 20-member crew, all close friends of his and young.

They were among the 14 U.S. Forest Service firefighters, including three smokejumpers and two helitack crew members, trapped and killed by the fast-moving blaze that day.

In addition to Rambo, former Prineville hotshot crew member Kip Gray, now a firefighter with the Medford Fire Department, survived the deadly fire.

Understandably, the tragic death of 19 members of an Arizona hotshot crew last Sunday in Yarnell, Ariz., brought back memories.

"I look at the ages of those young people and think of all the things in life they had yet to do," Rambo says. "I have known hundreds of young firefighters just like them. You know they were good people. It's such a shame. So horrible for the families that are left.

"And I think about my very good friends who weren't able to do things — have kids, raise a family," he adds of the Storm King fire.

Rambo stops talking for a moment to gather his thoughts.

"When this anniversary comes up, I think about whether I am living a life that would have honored them," he says. "That is a big motivating factor for me. I want to honor them through my actions."

By any measure, he is doing just that. After graduating from Oregon State University, majoring in history, he taught school for a dozen years, then went into administration. He just completed his second year as principal at Jewett Elementary School in Central Point. He is married with two children, ages 7 and 9.

"It really doesn't seem like 19 years have gone by," Tom Rambo says of the fatal fire of 1994.

The son of Ira and Darlene Rambo of Eagle Point, he was born into a family with firefighting genes.

His father retired in 1995 as assistant fire staff officer for what is now the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest after 30 seasons of battling fires.

For years, his mother was a dispatcher for the Forest Service tanker base at the Medford airport.

And his sister Carolyn, a 1987 graduate of Crater High School, was a wildlands firefighter.

A wrestler in high school who was accustomed to training hard, Tom Rambo began fighting fires after his sophomore year, working for the Oregon Department of Forestry. He joined the hotshot crew right out of high school.

"I enjoyed it," he said. "It was one of my most exciting times in my life. I was in my early 20s, traveling around the western United States."

They fought fires from Alaska to California and on both sides of the Rocky Mountains from Mexico to Canada.

"It's not very often when you are with a team of people so motivated — really professional, good physical shape and work so well together," he says. "It attracts a very special kind of person to be willing to work like that."

When you go to work, it matters not a whit whether you have headache or a gut ache, he says.

"You might be sick but you've still got a job to do," he says. "Everybody has to do their jobs. If you didn't do your job, someone would have to do it for you."

Nonhackers need not apply.

"When you make it through a tight spot, that brings you together as a team," he says. "And we were in a lot of tight spots together."

But none as tight as the fire on Storm King Mountain. The lightning-sparked fire was being fought by smokejumpers and other firefighters when the hotshot crews arrived on July 6.

"We came in with two different groups," he says of helicopter flights. "The first group went down the hillside. My group went up on top of the ridge."

Late that afternoon, the winds began to whip the mountain, causing spot fires to flare up ahead of the front lines. The firefighters at the bottom of the hill were unable to outrun the flames racing back toward them. Rambo and the other hotshots on the ridge were able to run into the relative safety of the burned-over area.

In 1995, Rambo and other survivors of the fire returned to help rebuild the hotshot crew. That was his last year on the team.

Come next July 6, marking the 20th anniversary of the tragedy he survived, he and his family will make a special trip to Storm King Mountain.

"We will hike up on the hill to pay our respects," he says.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or