Wildfire near Basalt gun range forces evacuations; two cited at the scene
The Aspen Times
and staff reports
More than 80 firefighters along with two helicopters and a slurry plane attacked a wildfire that was started Tuesday evening by two people who were firing tracer rounds at a shooting range northwest of Basalt.
The fire quickly spread up Basalt Mountain and forced evacuations in a number of neighborhoods west of the fire.
The blazed began about 6 p.m. in a secluded area on the Lake Christine Wildlife Area and was burning into the evening. Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said late Tuesday night that the fire was zero percent contained but conditions were starting to help. It burned approximately 50-60 acres within three hours, according to Eagle County officials.
As of 9:15 p.m., Thompson said the winds had slowed and they were able to make multiple passes with the helicopters and slurry plane. He said departments from up and down the valley helped with the fire, along with federal crews.
“I think we’ll be able to hold it,” Thompson said. “The winds have died down and the humidity is up.”
He said approximately 80 homes were evacuated. Basalt High School was established as the Red Cross evacuation center.
One evacuee, Tom Mcjill, said he left a lot of valuables, including artwork and items that can’t be replaced, in his apartment when he was asked to leave by Basalt Police officers.
Mcjill said his apartment is at the top of a drive just over the hill from where the fire is burning, and that police came by to say the evacuation was mandatory for his neighborhood.
“I don’t want anyone to jump to conclusions … but when they have a fireworks ban, they should probably ban target shooting,” he said.
Basalt town manager Ryan Mahoney confirmed the fire, which was dubbed the Lake Christine Fire, started at the range. He said town officials asked Colorado Parks and Wildlife on Monday about closing the shooting range on the wildlife area but had not heard back as of Tuesday afternoon before the fire started.
Two people were cited for starting the fire at the range, according to Jessie Porter of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department. She could not immediately confirm what they were cited for late Tuesday night.
Thompson said they preserved evidence at the range and the two people cited were firing “tracer round.” They were cooperative and talked with law enforcement officials, he said.
Glenwood Springs City Manager Debra Figueroa confirmed Tuesday night that the city did close its South Canyon shooting range two weeks ago, in light of the fire danger.
“We have closed the gun range for use other than an exception for the Police Academy. They will have to provide us with a fire safety plan,” Figueroa said in a June 20 memo to Glenwood City Council. “We did this in 2012 and determined it was wise to do so again.”
At the Basalt fire, two helicopters started dipping into the Roaring Fork River west of Basalt about 7:20 p.m. and doing water drops on the western edge of the fire. After spotter planes circled the area, the first slurry drop from a fixed-wing aircraft started at 8:11 p.m.
“Yes, it’s big, heading up (the mountain) and downvalley,” Thompson said in a text message at 7:16 p.m.
Basalt police officers started going door-to-door in the Aspen Junction neighborhood, which is on Original Road and Hillcrest Drive, around 8 p.m. to tell people to evacuate immediately. It is the closest area to the fire.
Just after 8:15 p.m., the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office called for mandatory evacuations for the neighborhoods of Hillcrest, Silvardo, Original and Sagewood. “Fire is headed in that direction. Evacuate Immediately!!!!!” they posted on social media.
Thompson said when the first crews arrived it was unusual circumstance because the fire was burning upvalley and not with the wind, going easterly against the prevailing winds.
It initially was heading toward The Wilds, which is a luxury development, the chief said. But after a short time, the wind direction changed and blew the flames toward the northwest and into an area where it affected an electrical transfer station where CPW maintains a hay field and backcountry land. No structures were threatened at that time, the chief said.
Thompson said there were loud pops and explosions when the fire hit the transfer station and “you could feel the concussion hit you.” Power in Aspen went out for a few minutes just after 6:15 p.m.
The fire was burning in an area of heavy brush of pinon and juniper but not a lot of pine trees.
The large flare-ups were sending up thick black smoke, which was drifting downvalley.
Thompson said by late Tuesday evening two 20-person hand crews were on the scene along with two federal wildland fire engines and every fire district in the valley sent personnel. He estimated there were 80 firefighters working the scene into the evening.