They could have taken their trailer of hay and left and everything would have been OK in their regard. But they stopped, even under the dangerous circumstances … and they gave aid. —Allen Huber
FARM CREEK, Uintah County — It's been six years, but Kim Bartel still remembers what the pilot flying over the quickly spreading wildfire told the firefighters on the ground.
"He says, 'I've been doing this for 20 years, and I've never seen fire do stuff like this before,'" Bartel said Friday. "You knew something bad was going on."
Something bad indeed.
Shortly after that radio call on June 29, 2007, the Neola North Fire sent cyclones of flame and super-heated gases into the horseshoe canyon where Roger Roberson Sr. was working to set up water lines in an effort to protect his farm and his hay.
George Houston and his son, Tracy, were there as well, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Roberson, whom they'd come to buy hay from.
"They could have taken their trailer of hay and left and everything would have been OK in their regard," said Allen Huber, a longtime friend of the Houstons.
"But they stopped, even under the dangerous circumstances and they gave aid," Huber said.
The decision to stay cost all three men their lives. On Friday, the Forest Service dedicated an informational kiosk on the mountain north of Roberson's farm in their honor.
"It really means a lot," Tracy Houston's wife, JaLynn, said. "It's a special thing they're doing, just to pay tribute to some great men. To keep their memory alive is important. They meant a lot to a lot of people."
Roger Roberson Jr. said his appreciation for the sacrifice the Houstons made on behalf of his father is impossible to put into words.
"They were very familiar with firefighting," he said. "They did not go out there foolishly or in ignorance because they knew nothing about it. They did it because they knew all about it, and they were trying to help my father."
Although the Houstons and Roberson were killed, Tracy Houston's then-11-year-old son, Duane, managed to escape injury when he followed his father's order to run. Stephen Ridley, a friend of Roger Roberson Sr. who had come to his farm to check on him, was also able to get out of the valley of fire alive.
"He went through the fire lines to try to get my dad out," Roberson said. "I can't say enough about those people. They're heroes to us."
The Forest Service kiosk provides brief biographies of the Houstons and Roberson, as well as a timeline of the Neola North Fire, which burned more than 40,000 acres in Duchesne and Uintah counties. The kiosk also includes information about fire's role in forest ecology and provides tips for safer living in areas that are prone to wildfires.
"It's not just a memorial. It also educates us," said Bartel, who is the district recreation manager for the Ashley National Forest and obtained the funding for the kiosk.
The Houston and Roberson families said they never expected the Forest Service to honor their loved ones, but say they are grateful the agency chose to do so.
"It's a very special time," Roberson said. "We won't forget this."