Conservancy raises $121,550 for Lake Christine Fire first responders — to prepare for or prevent next disaster | AspenTimes.com

Conservancy raises $121,550 for Lake Christine Fire first responders — to prepare for or prevent next disaster

Local firefighters and police officers didn't look for pats on the back for their quick and effective response to the Lake Christine Fire in July, but the special recognition they received Thursday will aid their missions.

The Roaring Fork Conservancy presented checks totaling $121,550 to the fire departments of Basalt-Snowmass Village, Aspen and Carbondale as well as the Basalt Police Department to share with other agencies. Rick Balentine, fire chief for the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department, said it is recognition that will be put to good use.

"Most firefighters I know, we're not big on parades," he said after the ceremony. "We don't do this for parades or accolades. It's our job. It's what we do but it certainly feels good to get recognition, especially in your hometown."

The Basalt-based conservancy holds an annual fundraising effort called the River Rendezvous. It includes a focused fundraising segment called a Paddle Raise, where funds are collected for its water quality and quantity programs. But co-organizers Sarah Woods and Judy Baum decided this year it would be appropriate to raise funds for local first responders. The Lake Christine Fire was still fresh on everyone's minds at the time of the event July 11.

“You guys were so fabulous. You saved us.”

— Sarah Woods to first responders

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"You guys were so fabulous. You saved us," said Woods, who has helped organize the River Rendezvous for 10 years.

Images of the frenetic first day and a half of firefighting are seared in the minds of many midvalley residents, said Roaring Fork Conservancy Executive Director Rick Lofaro. He recalled watching from his office window on the evening of July 3 when local firefighters scrambled to contain the fire after it broke out at the Basalt State Wildlife Area shooting range. He was among thousands of people awestruck as a DC-10 dropped slurry to protect downtown.

"We can't thank you enough. All of these people will never forget," Lofaro told the first responders.

The conservancy raised about $100,000 at the River Rendezvous and another $21,000 afterward. Alpine Bank stoked the contributions by offering the first $10,000, according to Woods.

"It was a feeding frenzy," she said. "We couldn't keep up with all the people donating for our first responders."

At Thursday's check presentation, Basalt-Snowmass Fire Department received $55,000. The fire departments of Aspen and Carbondale received $18,250 each. The Basalt Police Department received $30,050.

Police Chief Greg Knott said the contribution will be placed in a special fund overseen by a board. Law enforcement agencies that responded to the fire, and their employees, will be eligible to seek grants from the fund. That could range from equipment for an agency to aid to a responder who is facing some type of hardship, Knott said.

Aspen Volunteer Fire Department likely will use the funds to acquire equipment for wildland firefighting, Balentine said. That could include a utility terrain vehicle or enhancements for a drone, which the agency has used to help assess wildfires. A team will look at options and decide, he said.

The department sent about 20 firefighters to help with the fire. The training of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department and the various other departments shined and their ability to work together proved invaluable.

"You train for the worst and hope for the best," Balentine said. "In this particular case, I'm very proud of our firefighters for sure and definitely everybody we worked with."

Carbondale Fire Chief Rob Goodwin said the funds for his department will be used for wildfire fighting preparation for the paid staff and volunteers.

"First of all, we're just humbled," he said.

The department sent between 20 and 22 firefighters to the Lake Christine Fire and logged more than 1,400 hours in the effort.

"We needed every one of them," he said.

He was proud of the role his firefighters played when joining their neighboring agency.

"It reinforced to me how dedicated, able and willing they are to step in," Goodwin said. "I couldn't be more pleased with the response."

Thompson said the $55,000 contributed to the combined Basalt-Snowmass Village fire departments will be used on projects that benefit the community. The fire district will offer matching grants to individuals and towns for community-minded projects, such as reducing fuels and providing water tanks for subdivisions.

Federal and state funds for fuel-removal projects have become scarce, he said. A program was funded in the mid-2000s to clear brush on the east side of the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. That mitigation helped firefighters save the neighborhood as wind-whipped flames roared downvalley the night of July 4, he said.

The Basalt-Snowmass Village department had 55 firefighters working Lake Christine for two straight days without a break.

"Everything fell into place, everybody did what I expected them to do," Thompson said.

The department has established a history of sending firefighters to other areas in the West to help with wildland firefighting when it can. That experience paid off in the Lake Christine Fire, according to Thompson.

"This is what they do. This is why we send people out to help in other regions and other forests — to gain the experience, so that when something like this happens, they know exactly what they have to do — from lighting fires, to using water to put out fires or keeping people safe," he said. "Not a single firefighter from a local community other than our dozer driver was injured. That's a testament to me that our people know how to stay out of trouble, when to back off, when to say 'no.' I preach to them that they do not risk their lives for a piece of property."

Thompson estimated that fire departments outside the Roaring Fork Valley sent 100 firefighters to Basalt and El Jebel to aid the effort. The includes agencies west of Glenwood Springs in the Colorado River Valley and east in the Eagle River Valley and Summit County.

The role of the local fire departments was critical in the first two days before a federal incident command team came in and the number of federal firefighters swelled to greater than 550.

Thompson said there have been so many fundraising efforts for local first responders, it's hard to remember them all.

At Thursday's ceremony, the fire and police chiefs received a big round of applause from onlookers at the check presentation. Balentine looked into the crowd, which included some Basalt-Snowmass Village firefighters, and motioned at them.

"These are the people who deserve applause, not us," he said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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