Chinook over Basalt

A Columbia CH-47D Chinook, outfitted with a Simplex Fire Attack System with an internal water tank, takes another big drink from Lake Christine before heading back out Wednesday to deliver a payload of water to the hot spots where the fire remains burning east of Basalt.

Though the Lake Christine Fire’s growth rate has slowed, a large portion of it is contained and recent rains have led to a widespread feeling that it’s not the threat it was a week ago, the community shouldn’t let down its guard.

That’s the central message that Valerie MacDonald, emergency manager for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, wanted to convey during a wide-ranging interview on Wednesday. Since January, she’s been talking about the possible risk that could result from the area’s long-term drought.  

Those potential dangers became reality when the midvalley fire was reported to authorities on the evening of July 3. Since then, MacDonald has been working in a support role at the Lake Christine Fire incident command center in El Jebel, assisting local, state and federal officials with the crisis. As of Wednesday morning, the wildfire had torched more than 6,300 acres of land, mainly north and west of the town of Basalt. Three homes – one in Missouri Heights, and two near the El Jebel Mobile Home Park – were destroyed last week. No lives have been lost.

“The fact that we have a wildfire shouldn’t surprise anyone,” MacDonald said. “It was inevitable that one would start, and we could have another one tomorrow.”

So far, the fire has been confined mostly to Eagle County and did not cross into Pitkin County. But the threat of wildfire in the upper Roaring Fork Valley continues to be real, officials warn.

“We need everyone to take personal responsibility, and get the work done,” MacDonald said. “The work I’m talking about is mitigating your risk: creating a defensible space and then being ready to evacuate if need be. Government alone cannot do this.”

Regular rains can help to dampen the natural fuels that feed a wildfire, MacDonald said. But storms also can bring lightning, which often are the cause of forest-land blazes. The Lake Christine Fire was manmade, the result of two individuals illegally firing tracer rounds at a midvalley gun range.

The moisture levels of trees, shrubs and grasses in the Roaring Fork Valley remains at record lows, MacDonald said. While upper-valley areas near Aspen received rain on Tuesday and Wednesday, the midvalley got little precipitation, she said.

“Now that we’ve had a little bit of rain, people will become more lax,” MacDonald said. “We need to remain in a heightened sense of awareness.”

Stage II fire restrictions remain in place in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Stage II fire restrictions include, but are not limited to, the following rules:

  • No fires, campfires, charcoal or wood stoves.
  • No smoking, except within an enclosed vehicle or building.
  • No use of explosives.
  • No possessing, discharging or using any type of firework or pyrotechnic device.
  • No welding.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said the upper valley has been fortunate in that the Lake Christine Fire did not spread to the southwest toward Aspen.

“I’m sorry for the people who lost their homes and their property, I’m sorry for the inconvenience the fire caused, but I think in a very large, 30,000-foot view of things, Pitkin County got very lucky,” he said.

DiSalvo pointed out that with the fire moving away from the Highway 82 corridor in a northerly direction toward Basalt Mountain -- primarily into forest lands and away from residential areas -- the new concern will be the charred areas. With monsoon rains expected to arrive sometime this month, mudslides are a real possibility. 

“Heavy rains [washing out] bare lands with no foliage, that’s a legitimate concern right now,” he said.

Both DiSalvo and MacDonald stressed that Pitkin County has a solid plan for dealing with wildfire should it occur. The reason that the response to the Lake Christine Fire was so quick and successful was because Eagle County and the Basalt and Rural Fire Protection District also had a comprehensive plan in place, they said.

Pitkin County has an operating plan in case of such a crisis, and the plan includes potential evacuation routes, DiSalvo said. The management plan is flexible, though. It has to be, because there’s no telling where a wildfire is going to strike and which direction it will take.

MacDonald said Pitkin County has a public safety council that meets on a regular basis and continually plans and trains for wildfires and other potential disaster events. Strong relationships with other local, state and federal agencies are crucial to getting assistance whenever disaster develops, she said.

“Relationships are invaluable,” MacDonald said. “With the Lake Christine Fire, relationships and professionalism saved the day.”

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.

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