All mandatory evacuations forced by the Lake Christine Fire were downgraded Wednesday evening back to pre-evacuation notice as crews, battling high winds, have reached 49 percent containment of the blaze, residents were told at a briefing at Basalt High School.

The announcement, by Eagle County Sheriff’s deputy Kevin Kromer, which allows residents of upper Cedar Drive to return home, drew applause — but Eagle County Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney cautioned that the midvalley remains in a “precarious time,” and residents may have a very short window to evacuate if the fire returns.

“Keep a go bag ready,” she urged.

The midvalley was under a flood watch until 9 p.m. Wednesday. Information about flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to be posted on the Eagle County website, McQueeney said.

Kromer said those returning to their homes still must present their re-entry paperwork. Roads and trails in the Lake Christine area remained closed.

The fire stood at 6,315 acres Wednesday, which incident manager Keith Brink said represented only a 15-acre increase from Tuesday. The acreage figure doesn’t include growth fire crews saw Wednesday afternoon when a blustery thunderstorm blew through. That resulted in much more smoke as the fire continued to move northeast in the direction of Basalt Mountain, something crews are hoping for.

A helicopter continued attacking the blaze’s northeast perimeter, the only resource the federal team can use in that area. Brink called that frustrating, but said the cliff-filled terrain is too dangerous for ground crews. Firefighters pulled a lot of hose lines from fire lines that have been secured on the southern perimeter, which remains the primary focus, and are rehabilitating the terrain “to minimize erosion when the rains come,” he said, adding the hope is the fire will extinguish itself in the northeast section over time.

On the fire’s northern edge, the wind blew flames and embers into more trees, which Brink said is a different type of fuel from what has burned so far.

Deputy incident commander Roger Staats said there’s a good shot for rain today, but the valley should expect a dry, warmer period over the weekend and into next week. With the immense amount of work firefighters have done around Basalt and El Jebel, “we needed to test the fire lines,” he said. “It was a good test today.”

The situation has improved enough that on Monday, federal officials will move the response to a Type 3 team, which has fewer top managers than the Type 2 squad currently being employed.

The Type 3 team, comprised of local Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service employees, “know the country very well” and are comfortable handling the fire, Staats said. This is one part of what will be a long-range planning effort.

Also Monday, federal agencies and Eagle County will meet about mitigation and forest restoration, McQueeny said.

Another community briefing will be Saturday or Sunday. Residents should check the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page for the day and time.

Staats said that “every firefighter on this fire is welcoming the amazing surprise [they received] pulling into [the command center] last night.” Thankful residents lined the road into Crown Mountain Park, where crews have camped, Tuesday evening and offered firefighters raucous, heartfelt applause as they returned. The fast-moving blaze destroyed three homes and nearly overtook Basalt, El Jebel and Missouri Heights, forcing the evacuations of hundreds of homes until firefighters’ frantic containment efforts stood strong.

The grateful welcome is “something we don’t see all that often,” Staats said. “I can tell you, this community is above and beyond.”

 

chad@aspendailynews.com

Chad is a Contributing Editor for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at chad@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @chad_the_scribe.

Contibuting Editor