Lake Christine Fire: Evacuations ordered in Old Town Basalt as fire grows to 2,377 acres
Officials are expecting the Lake Christine Fire to burn possibly for weeks after it topped 2,300 acres Wednesday afternoon.
“Without a change in the weather it’s going to be burning in and around Basalt Mountain for a significant amount of time,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson concurred. “Yeah, there’s a chance it’s going to go to the top of Basalt Mountain,” he said.
The White River National Forest is preparing a closure order to prohibit access to Basalt Mountain to the ridge of Red Table Mountain, Fitzwilliams said.
Forest Service officials were sweeping the popular recreation area to alert campers, cyclists and hikers to vacate the area before gates on access roads are locked, Fitzwilliams said.
A portion of the Lake Christine Fire is running to the north toward Basalt Mountain. The fast-growing fire spread from the Basalt State Wildlife Area to lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, Fitzwilliams said.
Extension onto unpopulated national forest might be the least of the problems. The fire was threatening homes in and around Basalt as well as posing a risk to damaging enough of the electrical infrastructure to put the upper valley in the dark. A Pitkin County alert said the valley above Basalt should be prepared for a possible power outage for up to 72 hours.
Thompson and other firefighters said the fire is “complex” because of the extensive system of power lines in the area near the shooting range. In a tour of the burned area, Carbondale Fire Department captain Jake Spaulding showed a reporter and photographer from The Aspen Times Wednesday morning how the fire had destroyed wooden power poles. The lines were resting on guy wires.
“We’ll go around put the fire at the base of those power poles out,” he said. But the danger of lines falling prevents hand crews on the ground from working under or around the poles. It also restricts flexibility for the helicopters and airplanes used in fighting the fire.
Spaulding said he has never seen that amount of power lines in such a limited space despite experience “fighting fires all over the country.”
Additional evacuations were ordered in Basalt on Wednesday afternoon as federal and local firefighters struggled to get a grip on the Lake Christine Fire, which according to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office has burned 2,377 acres as of 4:45 p.m.
It is zero percent contained and 500 homes have been evacuated, officials said in a tweet.
Officials ordered the evacuation of Homestead Trail Park, the Wilds development, Ridge Road, Pinion and Cedar Drive at 12:50 p.m. All those neighborhoods are in the hills above downtown Basalt. A shelter was established Tuesday night at Basalt High School.
At 1:24 p.m., the evacuation order was expanded to include Homestead Drive, Sopris Drive, Tucker, Hillside, Longhorn and all addresses on the north side of Midland Avenue. That demonstrated the rapidly changing conditions. A pre-evacuation notice was issued for those neighborhoods just 12 minutes earlier.
Basalt police and other law officers were going door to door to enforce the mandatory evacuation.
Basalt resident Roger Adams said he was prepared to leave the home he rents on Ridge Road on Tuesday night as the fire grew.
“We got the photos and all the irreplaceable stuff packed in my truck,” he said.
The evacuation notice for his neighborhood never came Tuesday night, but when it was issued Wednesday he and his girlfriend were able to grab some additional items. They are able to stay with family in the valley rather than settle into the evacuation center at Basalt High School.
Adams said the fire didn’t appear to be a threat Wednesday morning. Southerly winds pushed the fire northwest — away from downtown Basalt on Tuesday night. His neighbor pointed out to him around noon that part of the fire was getting closer.
“My neighbor said, ‘It looks like it’s blowing up,’” he said.
The evacuation order was issued soon after. His neighborhood’s evacuation was calm and orderly.
“You’d see a neighbor go by and wave,” he said.
Further evacuation orders, if any, will be posted on the Facebook pages of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and Carbondale Fire Department. Emergency responders urged people not to call 911 to inquire about the evacuation orders because dispatchers have their hands full.
The midvalley looked, sounded and smelled like a combat zone by late morning Wednesday with a constant buzz of aircraft battling the wildland fire, black and white smoke rising in dramatic columns and the smell of charred vegetation hanging in the air. Gray ash covered the midvalley in the morning. The activity carried over to the afternoon.
A notice went out at 4:50 p.m. that power outages “to Roaring Fork Valley above Basalt” could happen in next 72 hours because of the fire.
Two helicopters dumping buckets of water circled the fire site, which was estimated at 330 acres but growing at mid-morning. Two small aircraft and one tanker made numerous rounds to dump fire retardant on the area.
The fire continued to move northwest toward Basalt Mountain on Wednesday early afternoon but as westerly winds picked up, the wildland fire also burned back to the east. Once it reached a pre-determined location, the neighborhoods closer to Basalt were evacuated.
They join the neighborhoods that were evacuated Tuesday night: Original Road, Silverado Drive, Hillcrest Drive, Sagewood Court and the Pineridge area.
Crews and the weather were able to quiet the Lake Christine Fire overnight Tuesday near Basalt but officials are worried about power lines in the area and the fire knocking out power in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to an update Wednesday morning.
Basalt town manager Ryan Mahoney on Wednesday morning said the fire “kept moving all night (and) the mild winds helped it from spreading too much,” he said after being in contact with Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott.
“The worry at the moment is the wooden power lines, which if burned will knock out power from Aspen to Basalt and over the hill to Gypsum and Wolcott,” Mahoney said.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said Wednesday morning that aircrews will start attacking the fire at 9 a.m. and will be as aggressive as they can before 11 a.m., which is when winds and the temperature start to pick up. The National Weather Service forecast for Basalt on Wednesday calls for calm winds and a high of 84 degrees.
“The Lake Christine Fire is a high priority fire in the State of Colorado to the values at risk and the power infrastructure located nearby,” Thompson said.
The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office said in a Wednesday morning update that 329 acres had been burned. It is zero percent contained and all evacuation orders remain in place for the Hillcrest, Silverado, Original, Pine Ridge and Sagewood neighborhoods, officials said.
Officials sent out a message this morning just before 11 a.m. to “anticipate evacuation orders to remain in place overnight.” The evac center is at Basalt High School. Last night, few people stayed there and opted to say with friends in the valley.
Colorado Emergency Management tweeted the fire has burned 100 acres.
There are fire crews around the Aspen Junction and the Original Road area to protect structures. The fire burned above those areas. “There is a wild land crew cutting fire line between the Wilds and gun range in case the winds shift back toward town,” Mahoney said.
Holy Cross Energy crews also are on the scene in case the powerlines are affected.
Mahoney and Thompson said the same aircraft crews from Tuesday will work the fire Wednesday, including the smaller slurry bomber.
Fire crews saw private drones flying in the area Tuesday night, and if that occurs Wednesday they will have to shutdown air operations.
The fire started Tuesday night around 6 p.m. when two people were shooting tracer rounds at the range on the Basalt State Wildlife Area. It grew to about 60 acres by 9 p.m. and more than 80 ground crews were on the scene into the evening.
Two people from El Jebel, 23-year-old Richard Karl Miller and Allison Sarah Marcush, 22, were cited for starting the fire at the range, according to Jessie Porter of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department. They have been charged with fourth-degree arson, but could face more charges after the investigation is complete, Amber Barrett of the sheriff’s office said Wednesday afternoon.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said Tuesday night they preserved evidence at the range and the two cited were firing “tracer rounds.” They were cooperative and talked with law enforcement officials, he said.
By Tuesday night, more than 80 firefighters along with two helicopters and a slurry plane attacked a wildfire.
As of 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Thompson said the winds had slowed and they were able to make multiple passes with the helicopters and slurry plane before dark.
He said departments from up and down the valley are helping with the fire, along with federal crews.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
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