Lake Christine Fire: 500 homes in fire’s path as intense firefighting effort continues in Basalt
The Aspen Times
The Lake Christine Fire expanded so drastically that hundreds of homes are now threatened by a blaze that officials described as “erratic” Wednesday night at a community meeting at Basalt High School.
There were an estimated 114 homes at risk Wednesday morning before the fire expanded in dry hillsides in the midvalley — before the fire made a “run” as winds and temperatures picked up later in the day, according to Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.
“We’re estimating there are 500 homes in the path of this fire (now),” he said at the meeting. The only area of containment is where the fire started, at the Basalt shooting range, he said.
Mandatory evacuations were ordered for an estimated 219 households with pre-evacuation notices to another 154 households, according to authorities. Scores of evacuated residents attended the community meeting and wanted to know prospects for returning home.
A mandatory evacuation notice was issued at 9:40 p.m. for the El Jebel mobile home park after the fire crested the ridge above El Jebel.
“I can’t give you an answer to when we’re going to open those areas back up,” said Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott. He said the evacuations are required because of the “erraticness of it — it keeps moving.”
An intense firefighting battle unfolded throughout Wednesday afternoon and into the evening to prevent the fire from cresting the ridge across Highway 82 from Whole Foods in the El Jebel area and to prevent the fire from sweeping too far down the hillside toward Old Town Basalt. Helicopters worked nonstop from about 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. to dump water on flaring patches of fire while small and large tankers dumped load after load of retardant ahead of the flames.
The midvalley looked, sounded and smelled like a combat zone 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.
Hundreds of gawkers were parked along Highway 82 and secondary roads in awe of the display.
The fire was at about 330 acres mid-morning Wednesday. Thompson said it was nearly 2,700 acres as of 7 p.m. He said there are 150 federal and local firefighters battling the blaze.
“The fire behavior forced them off of the line,” he said. “There’s no reason to hurt somebody.”
The goal was to get the ground crews back in action after the helicopters and air tankers finished their drops of water and retardant. The aircraft worked nonstop starting from late morning and stopped for the night at about 8:30 p.m.
Thompson said federal firefighting agencies dedicated four 20-person hand crews to the effort, seven small air tankers (though one became disabled when a tire blew during a resupply landing), four heavy air tankers and two helicopters.
“We ordered four more 20-person teams,” he said.
Thompson was apologetic to the crowd at the community meeting for the fire exploding on the Fourth of July.
“We tried our best to catch this thing,” Thompson said. “With the dry fuels and the wind we had (Tuesday), we didn’t stand a chance.”
The firefighters put a lot of emphasis Tuesday night on the right or easterly flank of the fire, which started at the Basalt shooting range. The goal was to protect downtown Basalt and the hillside residential neighborhood from the typical prevailing winds from west to east or upvalley. Thompson said the wind shifted direction, potentially saving homes from burning in the hill district. He said he hasn’t seen that drastic of change in wind direction in the evening in nearly 40 years of fighting fires in the valley.
“That being said, we’re kind of bummed,” Thompson said, referring to the growth of the fire. “We kind of feel like we failed, but I also know we tried really hard.”
The crowd didn’t feel the firefighters failed. They applauded the firefighters for their efforts battling the blaze.
Thompson said federal officials will take over command of the firefighting effort Thursday. An administrative team of at least 50 people will establish a command post at the Eagle County office building and other property adjacent to Crown Mountain Park.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Wednesday night it authorized use of federal funds to help the firefighting effort.
Officials are expecting the Lake Christine Fire to burn possibly for weeks after it expanded so drastically 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,” White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said prior to the community meeting.
“Yeah, there’s a chance it’s going to go to the top of Basalt Mountain,” he said.
The White River National Forest enacted a closure order to prohibit access to Basalt Mountain to the ridge of Red Table Mountain.
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 Wednesday morning, Carbondale Fire Department captain Jake Spaulding showed a reporter and photographer from The Aspen Times 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 fire.
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.
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.