The Lake Christine Fire through Basalt fire chief Scott Thompson’s eyes
The Aspen Times
SOME PEOPLE DON’T GET IT
Basalt Fire Department had to snuff a small grass fire along Highway 82 Thursday morning after a motorist apparently flicked a lit cigarette butte out the window, according to Fire Chief Scott Thompson.
The fire was reported at about 8 a.m. near Cerise Ranch. Firefighters extinguished the flames with no problem, Thompson said. They followed the burn pattern to the point of origination and found a cigarette butt, he said.
It’s not known if anyone witnessed the offense.
Thompson was amazed someone was that clueless and careless considering the charred aftermath of the Lake Christine Fire and smoking slopes of Basalt Mountain were clearly in view.
The Lake Christine Fire proved once again that the only thing predictable about a wildland fire is its unpredictability, according to Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.
“There’s really no textbook on how fire moves,” Thompson said. “I keep reminding people that this fire has never done what we expected it to do.”
He saw that same unpredictability while assisting in fighting the Coal Seam Fire outside of Glenwood Springs in June 2002. Howling gusts of wind rolled flames downhill, counter to the conventional wisdom that fires burn uphill.
Wind was both friend and foe at the Lake Christine Fire. An unconventional wind from the east helped save Basalt on July 3 and placed El Jebel in jeopardy on July 4.
A little bit of luck coupled with a heavy dose of preparation, skill and bravery prevented scores of homes from burning, Thompson said.
Following are some of the seminal moments in the Lake Christine Fire through the eyes of the fire chief.
Volunteers were ready
An administrative meeting of the Basalt Fire Department volunteers was scheduled days before for 6 p.m. on July 3 at the station in El Jebel. When the Lake Christine Fire was reported at 5:52 p.m., most of the firefighters had assembled.
That was the first stroke of good luck. That allowed a particularly rapid response.
“We staffed three engines out of here right off the bat,” Thompson said.
As he rounded the Emma curve on Two Rivers Road, he saw black smoke billowing straight up. Experience told him that meant the fire was already eating through the dry pinion and juniper trees.
Wind as a friend
The greatest threat at the Basalt shooting range was posed on the right flank — the side closest to the Wilds and other neighborhoods in the hills above Basalt. The fire was climbing to a lesser degree on the left flank, but up toward undeveloped terrain.
Thompson directed most of the firefighting effort to the right flank. He could hear chain saws roaring in areas hidden from his view and could tell firefighters were making progress.
“Then the wind hit,” he said.
Winds in the Roaring Fork Valley typically pick up out of the west in late morning and stay that way through the day. But the prevailing winds reversed at a critical time, blowing out of the east, and helped prevent the spread of the flames toward Basalt.
What benefited Basalt also posed a threat to residences in the hills above Highway 82 back to the west. Residents of Hillcrest Drive, Original Road, Pine Ridge, Silverado and Sagewood were ordered to evacuate at 6:35 p.m. July 3.
Thompson said the left flank started racing northwest. Even the top of the right flank was blowing to the left or northwest.
Thompson’s Plan A — to flank the fire and pinch the flames to a well-irrigated hay field — had to be abandoned.
A little help from their friends
Shortly after the fire broke out, fire departments from throughout the Roaring Fork Valley sent mutual aid. That was vital because Thompson knew that once the left flank blew past the Basalt transmission substation and into the hillsides choked with pinion and juniper, it was going to be a long battle.
“We weren’t going to contain this to a 1,500-acre fire,” he said.
Thompson placed a call to fire departments throughout the region under an agreement called the Mountain Chiefs Mutual Aid. Resources streamed in from the Eagle Valley and Summit County. He also called in helicopters and hand crews from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, federal firefighters based in western Colorado.
The airshow by helicopters dropping water and single-engine tankers dropping retardant mesmerized hundreds of gawkers lining Highway 82 and streets in downtown Basalt.
The wind died and the humidity climbed so the fire died down about 9 p.m. on July 3, giving the firefighters a chance to catch their breath.
Thompson felt good about the aggressive plan to hit the fire with all resources available the morning of July 4.
Wind as a foe
Chinook helicopters and air tankers ran nonstop missions throughout July 4, but the fire kept expanding. All areas north of Midland Avenue, Basalt’s main street, were ordered evacuated early that afternoon. Dread expanded through the valley when authorities advised residents from Aspen to Glenwood Springs to prepare for a possible power outage for as long as 72 hours.
Retardant drops prevented flames from coming into Basalt, and by evening, the fire seemed to be easing.
Thompson and colleagues in operations were trying to figure out what crews to keep out overnight and where to position them and who to call in to rest for the next day.
“Then all hell broke lose,” Thompson said.
The wind roared back to life, again out of the east. With the helicopters grounded for the night, the flames crested the ridge paralleling Highway 82 and started running toward El Jebel.
“This was a drought-fueled fire,” Thompson said. “Add the wind to it, and it was pretty much uncontrollable.”
The wind wasn’t forecast at such force. There was a thunderstorm near the Continental Divide, but the National Weather Service didn’t foresee the push-back winds reaching El Jebel.
The El Jebel Mobile Home Park was evacuated at 10 p.m. and multiple fire crews rushed in to defend it. They sized up the situation and decided they couldn’t defend two stick-built homes on the periphery.
Fighting fire with fire
Two circumstances and a bold strategy saved the mobile home park. First, Ace Lane’s property just upvalley was a well-watered greenbelt, according to Thompson. In addition, a fuels mitigation project between Lane’s Tree Farm property and the east edge of the mobile home park had removed fuel for the fire.
Still, it took brave action by firefighters from departments through the region to prevent the wind-whipped fire from sweeping through the mobile home park. The crews used multiple flares to ignite fires between the wildfire and residences. That removes fuel and, when done correctly, the wildland fire sucks the lit fire in, delaying momentum at least temporarily.
“They made a great decision when to light that fire along the fence line. Timing is key,” Thompson said. “The fire front didn’t come in to the trail park.”
Thompson, like all observers, is amazed at aerial footage by Denver’s 9News that shows a near-perfect line at the mobile home park. The ground is charred to the east while no damage is visible within the neighborhood.
“It’s obvious we should have lost 100 trailers or more,” he said.
If the fire had penetrated the mobile home park, firefighters would have been forced to fall back to El Jebel Road to try to prevent the flames from jumping, he said. The mobile homes would have fallen “like dominoes.”
Additional crews battled to prevent the fire from spreading into Missouri Heights as it climbed into one of the lower neighborhoods on the southeast side of the vast area. That’s where Basalt fire captain Cleve Williams and six colleagues had to give up the fight to save William’s house when they ran out of water. They were able to tap hydrants and save other homes nearby.
“Our game plan was to keep it from crossing Upper Cattle Creek (Road),” Thompson said. His house also was in the mandatory evacuation zone on Missouri Heights.
Expect a big burn
The federal firefighters joined the fight July 5 and have continually credited the local fire departments for a job well done.
Now federal resources are being peeled off the fire and management will be handed over from the Northern Rockies Incident Management to a team from Colorado’s West Slope. The fire is expected to burn to the north into undeveloped national forest on Basalt Mountain. Firefighters won’t be placed in potential death traps among the cliff bands.
“This fire isn’t going out for weeks,” Thompson said.
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