Colorado Parks and Wildlife has decided to reopen the gun range near Basalt where the Lake Christine Fire was ignited on July 3.
A CPW news release issued Thursday states that after “extensive, internal staff discussions and weeks of listening to public comments, including comments expressed during two meetings in Basalt with over 400 people in attendance, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will reopen the Basalt State Wildlife Area shooting range to the public Sept. 15.”
CPW technicians are in the process of implementing several upgrades at the range, including the installation of fire extinguishers, improvements to the backstop and the permanent removal of vegetation and brush, according to the release. After reopening on Saturday, the range will follow a five-day schedule, closing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Range hours will be 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, “until further notice,” the release says.
Midvalley resident Stacey Craft — who has been leading an effort by some Basalt-area homeowners to get CPW to examine relocation options for the range — was disappointed upon hearing the news. She pointed out that Eagle County issued a red-flag warning Thursday, citing potential fire danger due to high winds, low humidity and dry natural fuels.
“There will be no fire-suppression system in place at the range on opening day, only inadequate fire extinguishers,” Craft said. “This range location has been proven to be unsafe many times, and we are expecting CPW to put its efforts into relocating it as quickly as possible.”
Two individuals using incendiary tracer ammunition allegedly started the Lake Christine Fire on the evening of July 3. Both face felony arson charges in Eagle County District Court.
The fire scorched over 12,000 acres of mostly backcountry land and destroyed three houses in El Jebel and Missouri Heights. No lives were lost. The cost of fighting the fire has been estimated at over $17 million.
The release additionally says that CPW staff will work closely with the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District to conduct a site tour and review all fire mitigation and prevention work to ensure the range is safe to open. The agency is working with the Roaring Fork Valley Sportsmen’s Association, which has a long-term lease at the facility, to enlist trained range safety officers who will help monitor the range during its operating hours.
The idea of enlisting volunteer officers to monitor range activity was opposed officially by the Basalt Town Council, which passed a resolution last month recommending that the facility be staffed by CPW officers during all hours of operation.
In addition, the resolution asked that the range be closed on Sundays — another recommendation that didn’t make the cut.
CPW says it is planning additional upgrades in the near future, many derived from public input at two meetings it hosted at Basalt High School in August. CPW also will examine suggestions from range users, the release says.
J.T. Romatzke, CPW’s northwest region manager based in Grand Junction, said in a prepared statement that a steering committee will continue looking for long-term options and solutions.
“We recognize the concern reopening brings for some, but my decision to reopen the range comes with the consideration for what’s happened and our path forward,” Romatzke said. “When the facts are considered, I believe this is the right thing to do. The public needs safe, structured ranges where they can use firearms, and CPW will respond to that need in a responsible manner.”
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service, CPW and other agencies previously expressed concerns that the continuation of the range’s closure would send hunters out into public lands to sight their rifles ahead of the fall hunting season. They considered reopening the range a safer proposition than the alternative.
Romatzke said public comments received by CPW were an important part of his decision-making process. However, he took a variety of additional factors into consideration, including the overall history of the range, the release says.
Romatzke noted that the range has been in the same location for about 70 years. It had been used by thousands of recreational shooters without incident until 2012. That year, a fire burned an estimated two-acre area above the range, the release says.
“An investigation by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office indicated a discharged round may have caused the  fire. Upon additional examination, CPW officials believe the fire may have instead been caused by a discarded, lit cigarette,” the release states.
Romatzke, who at a recent meeting noted that the Basalt shooting range has always been a “contentious” facility, said the Lake Christine Fire was extremely unfortunate for the community and for CPW.
“… I truly sympathize with those whose homes were threatened or destroyed,” Romatzke said. “I have looked at this from every angle, and I’ve spent countless hours analyzing the facts, emotions and stances of all involved.”
He continued, “It’s important to take into account how the fire started, how long the range has been here and how many people have used it safely and without incident, many from the time they were kids through adulthood.”
In the end, he said he could not deny the use of the range to people who follow the rules and use the range as intended, “including hunters, Boy Scouts, 4-H shooting teams, recreational shooters and law-enforcement personnel.”
CPW said it has invested about 3,000 personnel hours and over $100,000 toward safety and habitat mitigation efforts in and around the range, which lies on state wildlife property. There is still more work to do that also will come at a cost, the release adds.
CPW personnel have been working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team to look at potential risks associated with areas scarred by the fire. A BAER assessment focused on imminent post-fire threats, including debris flow from future weather events that could pose a threat to public safety, natural resources or cultural resources.
“I firmly believe this has always been a safe range,” Romatzke said. “To simply say ‘close the range or move it’ is not a fair or workable solution at the moment. That said, I do want to make it clear that we intend to work on making it better going forward. We are confident we can, and will continue to make important improvements to address concerns.”
Craft and Basalt town officials have brought up the need for environmental testing in the area of the range because of the potential for lead toxicity and effects on the nearby Roaring Fork River. Romatzke said in a recent interview with the Aspen Daily News that he didn’t think lead toxicity was a problem at the site.