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Rain brings relief but concerns still smoulder on wildfire anniversary

July 3 and 4 will probably never be quite the same for residents of the mid-Roaring Fork Valley after the events of 2018.

The Lake Christine Fire broke out on the early evening of July 3. The next day it nearly torched Basalt and swept through El Jebel.

“I think a lot of us take a deep breath,” Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said of the anniversary.

Conditions are considerably different this year compared to 2018 thanks to an early appearance of monsoonal rains. Nevertheless, Thompson urges people not to get complacent because of some beneficial rain in recent days. A 90-degree day could turn conditions around.

“I want people to understand that we still live with wildfire,” he said.

Four years ago by this time, wildfires had already terrorized the western United States and smoke had been in the air from faraway blazes. Parched vegetation in the valley was turning brown and was brittle to the touch. It created a collective feeling of, “Hmm, wonder if our number is up?”

It was. The fire broke out at the Basalt shooting range the evening of July 3 when a young man and woman unlawfully fired incendiary ammunition. Grasses and other vegetation lit and the fire was off and running.

Before the fire was officially contained Oct. 9, it had burned 12,589 acres and destroyed three houses on the worst night, July 4.

This year, the valley heads into the holiday weekend after receiving a good soaking. On Thursday and into the early hours of Friday, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport picked up 0.54 inches of rain, and Basalt Mountain absorbed between 0.42 to 0.65 inches. El Jebel collected nearly two-thirds of an inch. Missouri Heights was blessed with up to half an inch, according to records tracked by AspenWeather.net.

The soggy day continued a wet trend over the prior 10 days. Even so, the tally at the Aspen Water Plant showed it received only 0.71 inches of precipitation in June, down from an average of 1.21 inches. The water plant was essentially dry for the first half of the month.

More monsoonal flow of precipitation is forecast in coming weeks.

“The monsoons have come in almost 30 days earlier than the historical track,” said Patrick “PK” Kieran, fire management specialist with the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit.

Conditions are significantly better than they were at this time the last two years in addition to 2018.

“Twelve months ago we were in severe drought,” Kieran said.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor index rates Pitkin County, Eagle County and most of Garfield County in “moderate drought,” the least severe of four drought ratings.

The Lake Christine Fire breaks out on Tuesday, July 3, 2018.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Pitkin County Emergency Management Director Valerie MacDonald said this is the first in three years and second in five years that there weren’t fire restrictions in place by July Fourth weekend.

“Are we out of the woods on fire? No, we’re not. This is a nice reprieve,” MacDonald said.

Average to near-average snowpack on the Western Slope helped get spring off in good shape, despite warm winds and dry periods. But rain starting in mid-June helped reduce wildfire risk. Kieran said soil moisture is recovering and moisture level in vegetation is well above danger levels.

After a busy couple of years, firefighters and resources have enjoyed a reprieve so far this season, Kieran said.

MacDonald said public service agencies are enjoying the weather, but not counting on it lasting.

“We are all so programmed to be on hyper-alert that we haven’t let our guard down yet,” she said.

People still need to take precautions despite more favorable conditions, MacDonald said. That includes avoiding fireworks, properly dousing a campfire and preventing chains from trailers dragging on roadways and producing sparks. People also need to use caution when discarding cigarette butts, she said.

“We have a lot of people (visiting the valley). We’re still urging people to be careful with fire,” MacDonald said.

In the back of her mind, she’s also thinking about 2019 when there were no fire restrictions at this point. Steady snowstorms in February and March that year created a healthy snowpack that kept conditions moist into summer.

Despite the persistent drought, the Lake Christine Fire didn’t leave a legacy, by-and-large.

“It’s a vivid memory in many people’s minds but we honestly didn’t see the changes in people’s behavior,” MacDonald said.

She urged people to go over their evacuation plan and clear defensible space around their property.

(Editor’s note: This story was corrected to show there were no fire restrictions implemented in fall 2019.)

scondon@aspentimes.com