Doing the dirty work at the Lake Christine Fire
As businesses began ushering customers back into the heart of downtown Basalt on Sunday, local and national fire crews continued battling the Lake Christine Fire not far above the small town’s main drag.
Just up the road from popular eateries and well-known watering holes, a Snowmass Village police officer blocked and made sure those entering Sopris Drive had the proper credentials — no residents and absolutely zero sightseers got waved through the barricades.
Farther up was another checkpoint, manned by a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy, who doubled down on making sure only authorized personnel entered the volatile area.
Along Pinon Drive propane tanks littered abandoned driveways as American flags from the Fourth of July whipped in the wind. Parking at the cul-de-sac at the top of the drive, one could not help but acknowledge the gun range where the Lake Christine Fire started the evening of July 3.
Barbed-wire fence with numerous Colorado Division of Wildlife signs warn, “Danger — shooting range beyond this sign.” Some of those signs now are covered in fire retardant from slurry drops.
The “danger” now is of another sort.
The usually serene, summertime Basalt Mountain instead roared Sunday with chainsaws on the ground as well as a dual-propeller Chinook helicopter and firefighting aircraft constantly flying overhead.
The ground looked like black soot, and the once green vegetation remained covered in pinkish-red fire retardant just footsteps away from critical power lines.
When firefighters from the Lost River Fire Management crew, based out of Klamath County, Oregon, emerged for a quick hydration break, they looked like coal miners finishing a grueling day.
However, it doesn’t take long for Markus Idrogo and Ismael Corona to quickly return to searching for hot spots — an incredibly dangerous and tedious task.
Carrying a 25-pound chainsaw and brushing off his dusty goggles, Idrogo, as he caught his breath, described the working conditions as erratic with low humidity, lots of fuel and steep slopes.
Always communicating with one another, the three cut down large branches, diligently dug with super pulaski axes and, at times, literally put the backside of their bare hands on the charred, black ground to feel for potential hot spots.
Right out of high school, Martin Sierra — also with the Lost River Fire crew — appeared unfazed by the daunting job in front of him.
“My motto in life is ‘no fear,’” the 18-year-old Sierra said. “If I fear, I die.”
The Lake Christine Fire, which has burned 5,900 acres as of Sunday and displaced thousands of residents since it blew up Tuesday, served as Sierra’s first firefight. Without missing a step, the young firefighter weathered the steep and rocky topography like a seasoned veteran.
“The cool thing is that it’s a sisterhood, it’s a brotherhood of firefighters,” Operations Section Chief Jim Grant said of the camaraderie among the crews from all over the country assisting with the Lake Christine Fire.
“It’s amazing, you know, out of the thousands upon thousands of firefighters, and how many people you see year after year that you’ve met sometime in your career,” Grant said. “It is phenomenal, and these are highly trained people, even the beginners. They have been through a lot of training, academic and basically out in the field training.”
Emergency personnel welcomed the rain that doused Basalt Mountain late Sunday afternoon but warned of the fire’s ongoing severity. While setbacks occur, like a bulldozer overturning and injuring a firefighter Saturday, luckily those affected escaped with just bumps and bruises.
“Absolutely, it could have been worse, and communication is essential,” Grant explained. “If we cannot maintain LCES (lookout, communications, escape routes, safety zones) we don’t engage. … We have to communicate with the public all the time; we have to provide safety for them, as well.
“All departments involved, all law enforcement involved,” he added, “we’ve got to communicate with them because they man a lot of our checkpoints. Everybody involved. … We have to have LCES to keep everyone safe.”
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“I don’t know how to feel about it,” said the Basalt firefighter who lost his home in the Lake Christine Fire last July about the sentence facing the couple who started the blaze.