CPW defends decision not to close Basalt shooting range sooner

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials defended their decision Wednesday to keep the Basalt State Wildlife Area shooting range open after fire restrictions were placed on public and private lands throughout the Roaring Fork Valley last week.

J.T. Romatzke, Northwest Regional manager for CPW, said in a statement Wednesday morning that use of the shooting range wouldn’t have posed a fire hazard if it were used responsibly.

“The Basalt range is a great facility and is a very safe range,” Romatzke said in the statement. “The fire was caused by one person’s irresponsible behavior, not standard behavior practiced at a range. However, with these extreme drought conditions, we are closing our ranges out of an abundance of caution.”

All shooting ranges throughout the Northwest Region will be closed indefinitely, the agency said.

“The fire was caused by one person’s irresponsible behavior, not standard behavior practiced at a range.” — J.T. Romatzke, CPW

The Lake Christine Fire originated at the Basalt shooting range, which is a public facility, shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday. A man and a woman have received a summons in lieu of arrest for starting the fire, according to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. They fired tracer bullets that include a pyrotechnic charge, according to CPW. Those types of rounds are illegal at any time of year, regardless of fire restrictions, according to CPW.

Perry Will, CPW area wildlife manager for area 8, told The Aspen Times on Wednesday morning that the shooters were in an area where targets are placed in front of a berm that is cleared of vegetation and scraped down to dirt. The fire started on a hillside above the berm behind the target area. It is unclear if the shooters missed the target or were shooting in a way where the tracer bullets were landing in the heavily wooded area adjacent to the berm.

“It appears they weren’t using the range properly,” Will said.

He said people had used the range safely throughout the day on Tuesday.

“It’s just an unfortunate thing,” he said.

CPW was roundly castigated on social media among midvalley residents Tuesday night and Wednesday for the shooting range being open despite the high fire danger.

Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said the town government contacted CPW on Monday to ask about shutting down the range because of the high fire danger but didn’t hear back. CPW’s statement said it didn’t receive any formal requests to change its management policies or operation of its shooting ranges, but decided to shut down the facilities Wednesday as a precaution. The agency pledged to work with local fire and law enforcement agencies to determine when to reopen.

Stage II fire restrictions were enacted last week in the White River National Forest and in Pitkin and Eagle counties. Garfield County had already adopted the rules — which prohibit all forms of campfires and even residential charcoal grill use.

CPW’s statement addressed the criticism.

“We understand the fear, concern and anger of local residents. We share this frustration and concern with the Basalt community,” said Bob Broscheid, CPW director. “Participation in shooting sports happens safely every day, and an unfortunate incident like this one shows the importance of respecting the rules and laws regarding the use of firearms.”

This is the second fire started by illegal activity at the Basalt shooting range. A fire broke out Aug. 3, 2012, and was snuffed when large tankers dumped retardant in the area. CPW initially suspected exploding targets or tracer rounds but ruled them out after talking to witnesses and investigating the point of origin. Fire restrictions were in place at the time but the shooting range remained open to the public.

The 2012 fire burned 2 acres then was snuffed by grounds crews with the help of tankers dropping retardant.