A look back at the year that was in Garfield County, Part 3
Editor’s note: Each year has its memorable stories, and 2018 was no exception in Glenwood Springs and throughout Garfield County. The Post Independent continues a four-part, quarterly look back on the year that was through New Year’s Day, both in words and photos. The final two installments will appear Monday and Tuesday. Want to revisit the original stories? Read this and subsequent articles at postindependent.com, which will provide links for greater context and a little trip down the 2018 memory lane.
Lake Christine Fire blows up
For years to come, when Basalt and El Jebel residents celebrate America’s Independence Day with picnics and festive red, white, and blue pastimes, they will undoubtedly look up at Basalt Mountain’s charred trees and share stories of where they were and what they endured when the Lake Christine Fire blew up like a forbidden firework in the sky.
Just before 6 p.m. July 3, Mother Nature displayed her fury in full force after two individuals allegedly shot off illegal tracer rounds at the Colorado Parks and Wildlife shooting range just footsteps from Basalt homes and its historic downtown.
Dozens of first responders received the call they prepare their entire careers for but hope they will never hear over their radios.
Soon after, the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office issued a mandatory evacuation for the Hillcrest, Silvarado, Original and Sagewood neighborhoods through numerous communication outlets, including social media.
One official post warned and demanded: “Fire is headed in that direction. Evacuate immediately!!!!!”
For weeks on end, the midvalley was abuzz with helicopters and tanker planes dipping into area lakes and ponds, and dropping water on the fire. The Glenwood Springs Municipal Airport and the Rifle-Garfield County Regional Airport both provided critical air support during the firefighting efforts.
First responders put lives on line
Fireworks did not light up the Fourth of July sky in the mid-valley area, but in the words of Basalt Fire Department Capt. Brian Davies a, “prolific ember shower” did.
Shortly after 9 p.m. on July 4, as reported by Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon, “all hell broke loose,” when 50 mph wind gusts steered the Lake Christine Fire down a dangerous and potentially deadly path headed straight for the El Jebel Mobile Home Park.
Crews worked tirelessly until 4:30 a.m. as residents watched on pins and needles from a distance, as pinyon’s popped like gunshots and flames flared.
“We definitely thought we were going to lose the trailer park for a couple of minutes,” Davies was quoted as saying.
Three homes were lost in the fire. Hundreds were saved.
Crowds heralded the bravery exhibited by local and federal firefighters after they answered the call by putting themselves between fire and residences and as a result saved the mobile home park and, undoubtedly, lives too.
Alleged wildfire culprits arrested
Despite fire restrictions at the time prohibiting everything from charcoal grill fires to smoking a cigarette outside, the public Basalt gun range remained open. And, adding fire to fuels, quite literally, two individuals were arrested and charged for shooting off tracer rounds at the range. Tracers are a form of exploding ammunition always banned at the shooting range.
Fifth Judicial District Attorney Bruce Brown confirmed that El Jebel residents Allison Marcus, 22, and Richard Miller, 23, were arrested at a Basalt-area residence after not turning themselves in to authorities.
The pair was taken into custody and charged with fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony, and firing woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony.
Both Marcus and Miller later were free after each posting a $7,500 bond.
The Lake Christine Fire ultimately cost federal land agencies $17.1 million to fight.
A community in solidarity
As firefighters from the Roaring Fork Valley and federal hot shot crews from around the country continued to extinguish the Lake Christine Fire, the American Red Cross and countless volunteers from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and beyond assisted evacuees with food, water, shelter and selfless compassion.
Basalt High School and Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale served as evacuation centers for displaced residents, while Colorado Animal Rescue next to CMC’s Spring Valley campus and other locations welcomed animals in the close to 90-degree heat.
Even one woman and her daughter who showed up to volunteer later learned they were evacuees themselves. Instead of trying to quickly salvage items from their home, they served as translators for those who could not speak English, even though they also needed help.
Beatriz, (who did not want her last name used) said, “I don’t want to see someone who is struggling trying to speak and are unable to understand, so I am here and happy to help in that way or in another way.”
7th Street project proceeds
Following a weeks-long controversy over the release of pre-bid engineering estimates, the Glenwood Springs City Council voted to move the Seventh Street beautification project forward.
Mayor Michael Gamba joined Councilors Steve Davis, Jim Ingraham and Todd Leahy, who had initially been opposed to releasing the cost estimates, joined the remainder of the board in agreeing to release the numbers and take formal bids.
Nurse imposter arrested
A 39-year-old woman was arrested in July in Knox City, Texas after an investigation found she allegedly had worked as an imposter nurse at Glenwood Springs Health Care, a local nursing home and assisted living facility, as well as at an assisted living facility in Evergreen.
According to an arrest warrant, Glenwood Springs Health Care hired Heather Lee Wood (now Heather McCray), on Nov. 21, 2016 to work as an administrator in a building behind the main nursing home. She was later assigned to be a nurse in the main facility, but allegedly under false pretenses.
She was eventually brought to Glenwood Springs where she awaits trial.
The revelation came amid a report by the Post Independent that the Glenwood nursing home, under previous ownership, had a long list of Colorado Department of Public Health violations that it was working to clean up under the new owners.
Three tragic drownings
Two Carbondale men died July 21 when they both drowned at Ruedi Reservoir. The deaths of John Teague, 46, and James “Bret” Varra, 59, were ruled an accident by Eagle County Coroner Kara Bettis.
The two friends had reportedly tied their boats together Saturday at the lake east of Basalt up the Frying Pan Valley. Varra began struggling in the water at one point and Teague jumped in to help him, but appeared to run out of energy while swimming back to the boat.
Just a few weeks later, on Aug. 6, 21-year-old Daniel Guardado was identified as the man who died as a result of an accidental drowning at Grass Valley Reservoir at Harvey Gap State Park north of Silt.
Garfield County Sheriff’s and Coroner’s Office investigators learned from witnesses at the park that Guardado had entered the water to retrieve an inner tube that had been blown out onto the lake by wind.
Fire scare near South Canyon
On Aug. 8, just a little over a month after the Lake Christine Fire erupted, a wildfire ignited near the South Canyon exit on Interstate 70, putting Ami’s Acres Campground and Mitchell Creek on pre-evacuation notice.
While the fire, after 95 percent containment, had burned three to four acres, first responders from various agencies in addition to aerial support in the form of water bucket drops swiftly extinguished the fire. The fire forced a closure of both westbound lanes on I-70 as well as both eastbound lanes on I-70 for several hours.
High country fires
As the summer progressed, two lightning-caused fires sparked high in the White River National Forest in late July and early August.
The Cache Creek Fire in western Garfield County, and the Cabin Lake Fire along the Buford Road north of New Castle in southern Rio Blanco County ended up burning several thousand acres, but no structures were lost.
Before the summer was out, the two fires combined had cost federal firefighting agencies $19.5 million to fight.
Lopez leaves Carbondale sanctuary
After 306 days of taking sanctuary in a parsonage belonging to Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist in Carbondale, Sandra Lopez returned home to Silt on information from her attorneys that her deportation was not imminent.
“I am very, very happy,” Lopez said before addressing a small gathering of supporters outside of the parsonage where she resided for the last 10 months. “I just want to live and enjoy a normal life with my family.”
Lopez had been arrested in 2010 after one of her children dialed 911 following an argument between her and her husband. But she quickly found herself dealing with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, leading to her deportation order several years later despite attempts to become naturalized.
Hotel Colorado, Yampah Caves celebrate 125 years
A rare and historic event was celebrated in Glenwood Springs Sept. 15, when the Hotel Colorado and Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves jointly celebrated their respective 125th birthdays.
The day-long party included history lesson, art, music, dancing and more.
“The Birthday Bash is an opportunity to celebrate a momentous occasion. It’s not every day you turn 125,” said Christian Henny, general manager of the Hotel Colorado. The Hotel Colorado had changed hands in June, from it longtime owners, the Bastian family of Kansas, to renowned hoteliers the Melville family of Aspen.
New water attraction announced
In September, the 130-year-old Glenwood Hot Springs Resort announced plans for a multi-million-dollar renovation of the west end of the property.
The resort released plans to add new aquatic features including an adventure river, interactive water features, and more.
Glenwood Hot Springs CEO and President Kjell Mitchel said at the time, “The new Adventure River is a custom-designed tube ride in keeping with the family-oriented Colorado outdoors experience.”