Worn out residents cheer lifting of more fire evacuations in Basalt and El Jebel
The Aspen Times
Firefighters made enough progress on the Lake Christine Fire to allow a phased lifting of the evacuation for hundreds of additional residents on Sunday and Monday.
“We’re going to start lifting some of the evacuation orders (Sunday) at 8 a.m.,” Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek announced to cheers, high-fives and some tears of joy at a community meeting Saturday night at Basalt High School.
There will be a phased opening of neighborhoods so the electrical grid isn’t overwhelmed and Black Hills Energy can get gas service stored.
El Jebel Mobile Home Park — which was at the center of the firestorm Fourth of July night — will open at 8 a.m. Sunday.
Residences on Big Pinon and Little Pinon drives, the Shadow Rock complex, Original Road, Pine Ridge condominiums, Sagewood Court, Hillcrest, Silverado and Two Rivers Road for access to Hillcrest will open at 2 p.m. Sunday.
At 8 a.m. Monday, residents on Sopris Drive and all areas lower on in the Hill District will be allowed home. Two Rivers Road into Basalt also will reopen, according to Police Chief Greg Knot.
Van Beek stressed that conditions can change rapidly in a fire and that residents should remain in pre-evacuation mode, with bags packed and ready to go.
Law enforcement officials will maintain checkpoints at the neighborhoods for 24 hours to ensure only residents are gaining access. A valid driver’s license, proof of residency via something like vehicle registration or a utility bill or a re-entry tag is needed to get past the checkpoints, Van Beek stressed.
The evacuation order remains in effect in Missouri Heights east of Upper Cattle Cree Road, the Wilds complex in Basalt and the Basalt streets of Cedar, Pinyon and Ridge.
Van Beek estimated that closures still affect about 300 residents.
Roger Staats, deputy incident commander for the Northern Rockies Incident Command, said it could be up to five days before conditions in those upper elevations are stable enough to open those neighborhoods.
“I’m super happy for everybody who gets to go home,” Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt told the crowd.
At the conclusion of the meeting, many attendees were happy to remain inside for a few extra minutes as much needed and welcomed rain soaked Basalt and the surrounding area. It didn’t rain long enough to have a significant effect on the firefighting effort.
The burn area grew by 300 acres to a total of about 5,735 on Saturday, according to Keith Brink, operation section chief for the Northern Rockies Incident Command.
“We’re about 8 percent contained now,” he said to a cheer. “We’re two days into this now. We’re progressing well.”
While the fire started Tueday night, the federal firefighters took over the incident Thursday. More than 400 firefighters are on the scene and the number is expected to swell to 550 this weekend.
Using a map, Brink showed the crowd how the firefighters have bulldozed a fire line on the northwest side of the fire to prevent it from entering populated area of Missouri Heights. If the fire burns toward that line, firefighters can start a burn to remove fuels, he said.
The fire will be allowed to burn upslope on Basalt Mountain in the White River National Forest as long as it doesn’t threaten populated areas, he said.
The more troublesome vicinity is above the Hill District of Basalt, where there is steep, rocky terrain, Brink said. There was extensive use of helicopters to control the fire above town, he said.
It’s difficult to place firefighters in the steep and rocky terrain so they will allow some spots to burn off on their own and be prepared to “slow that fire down as it backs down the hill,” Brink said.
Staats said Saturday was less active for the fire than Friday, and Sunday will be less active than Saturday. Higher temperatures and low humidity will likely result in some torching of trees high up on the mountain and production of smoke.
There could be fire in the dark timber of Basalt Mountain for “a considerable time” until it rains, Brink said. A Forest Service official said the Roaring Fork Valley could be in for a long, smoky summer because of the fire.
The Aspen chamber said Saturday that American Airlines has canceled all flights in and out of Aspen until Monday because of flight restrictions in the area of the fire.
United and Delta have not canceled flights, but travelers are asked to call the airline before heading to the airport.
Staats said the command team is aware of the temporary closure of airspace and will work to address it.