Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff will discuss whether to close the Lake Christine gun range, where a fire that has charred nearly 6,300 acres, destroyed three homes and forced the evacuations of hundreds of others was sparked last week, the agency’s area wildlife manager said Tuesday.
Perry Will also said a CPW wildlife manager did receive a call, on his office number, from Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney on July 2, the day before two people allegedly started the fire using incendiary tracer rounds illegally at the site. But the employee was in the field, and Will said CPW staff were already discussing whether to close the state-owned Lake Christine range and others in the region. He doubted a conversation with Mahoney would have led to an instantaneous closure.
With many questioning why the range was open during Stage 2 fire restrictions, Will said he was at the facility on July 3 hours before the fire started and, echoing Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson, said users of the range were acting appropriately and it was only the suspects’ use of tracer bullets that caused it.
“If it had been a rifle round, it wouldn’t have caused a problem,” Will said. “Used properly, [the range] was safe.”
The rules that include a prohibition on tracer rounds at all times, regardless of fire restrictions, are posted in three places at the facility. The suspects, Richard Miller, 23, and Allison Marcus, 22, face felony arson charges.
The suspects, who were using a shotgun and a rifle, were shooting in the rifle section, where having a shotgun is also against the rules.
“They weren’t shooting into the dirt bank, the backstop of the rifle range,” Will said, adding that all targets can only be a maximum of 100 yards from the firing area and that users must keep their bullets within their shooting lanes.
“In my opinion, when they were shooting those tracer rounds, they weren’t staying within the lanes,” he said. “If you’re shooting at targets from the far left benches that are supposed to be shot at from the far right benches, you get the trajectory where maybe the good earth bank doesn’t catch it.”
He said 99 percent of those at the range have been using it correctly.
CPW does not staff its ranges with a full-time employee, though wildlife officers try to pop in when possible to check on users, and range officers with the private Roaring Fork Valley Sportman’s Association, which operates a skeet, trap and five-stand shotgun club, occasionally check on the public section as well.
Will acknowledged that CPW is going to meet about the future of the facility in the Basalt State Wildlife Area.
“There’s going to be discussion after discussion after discussion,” he said. “We’re going to discuss whether there’s going to be a range or not; how it [would] operate; there’s going to be a lot of safety protocols.
“There’s going to be some changes, obviously.”
The gun range saw a fire in August 2012 that was extinguished after it burned about five acres and caused a brief evacuation of The Wilds neighborhood, one of the areas evacuated last week. Fire mitigation after the 2012 fire — the cause was never established, though Will suspects a cigarette butt — included using a CPW bulldozer, prison work crews and a Boy Scout troop to clear brush and construct a new earthen dam to catch bullets. Thompson was also consulted for the work at the range, which was built in the 1960s.
Work CPW was doing on the day of the fire last week might have stopped it from spreading to The Wilds. Will said that after the blaze ignited, he instructed a CPW heavy-equipment operator to dig a fire line from the range to The Wilds with a bulldozer.
“And I’m so glad we did because it helped,” he said.
The bulldozer had been above the range for irrigation work related to providing water for deer, elk and other game.
“I would love to get a charged water pipeline down to the range so we could use big-gun sprinklers and keep it wet around there,” he said. “We put in for it a few years ago [through] a range grant and didn’t get it.”