Hundreds give thanks in Basalt to first responders in Lake Christine Fire

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Colette Abraham, 4, learns how to operate the siren on an antique Basalt fire truck during the National Night Out event on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 at Triangle Park in Willits. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times).
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

It was finally time Tuesday night to say “thank you” to the local first responders on the Lake Christine Fire.

Hundreds of midvalley residents filled Triangle Park in Willits Town Center to mingle with firefighters, police officers and other responders. It was the local version of the National Night Out event, where community members are encouraged to mix with their law enforcement officers and firefighters to bring everyone closer together.

The event was the first time midvalley residents were able to collectively thank the first responders.

Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt got the event started by thanking the firefighters specifically and all first responders.

“They are the ones that saved our town when it blew up everywhere,” Whitsitt said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The fire started July 3 and threatened parts of Basalt before the wind miraculously shifted from the east. Basalt enlisted the help of firefighters from throughout the region when the fire exploded July 4 and the same type of wind that helped save Basalt the day before threatened El Jebel. Fire departments from Aspen to Vail and west in the Interstate 70 corridor played a critical role of protecting structures during the first 48 hours of the fire before it spread to federal lands.

“We could never have planned for what happened in Basalt and El Jebel,” Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson told the crowd.

All the training and prior experience of the firefighters paid off, he said, and the cooperation among agencies was critical.

“We were prepared,” he said. The community also collectively handled it well, he said.

Thompson noted that while Tuesday was the first public gathering to celebrate, the community has shown its gratitude.

“I don’t think I’ve bought a breakfast burrito in five weeks,” he quipped.

The event was short on public speeches and intended to let the public and first responders mingle.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ for all you do,” one woman said when she approached a Basalt firefighter and shook his hand. That was a common sight throughout the night. Hugs and back slaps were in big supply.

Several Basalt firefighters said they were relieved that it was a “low key” event. It was decided not to introduce individual firefighters and keep the gathering informal.

One Basalt firefighter said people he knows have been approaching him for weeks and thanking him for his role and the department’s response to the fire. It was different Tuesday night and particularly rewarding to have strangers come up and give thanks, he said.

John Young, a member of the Basalt and Rural Fire District board of directors, said the department deserves credit for “performing so admirably.”

Two homes were destroyed in El Jebel and one in Missouri Heights. When looking at the charred hillsides, it is amazing the loss wasn’t greater.

“It so easily could have gone the other way,” Young said.

Thompson’s leadership played a major role in the outcome, Young said. He acted quickly to get other departments responding because he realized the severity of the fire. His credibility as a longtime fire chief helped gain the quick allocation of federal resources, including airplane and helicopter support on the opening days, before the federal firefighters took control of the incident, Young said.

The Basalt and Snowmass Village fire departments are melding into one fire unit. The Lake Christine Fire showed they are effective working together.

“As a board member, how can you not be proud of your guys?” Young said.

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