Three families lose homes in Lake Christine Fire
Cleve Williams spent most of the past three days battling on the front lines of the Lake Christine Fire as a Basalt volunteer firefighter, saving hundreds of homes. But during the early-morning hours Thursday, the veteran of the department lost his house to the 5,263-acre blaze.
His house on Missouri Heights was one of three homes burned to the ground when the fire was fueled by strong downvalley winds that started late Wednesday night when officials thought the fire had calmed down.
Williams, along with his fellow firefighters, tried to save the house but the flames came too quickly, his sister-in-law, Kara Williams, said Thursday.
She lives within 500 feet of Cleve’s home, located at 850 Vista Drive. Cleve called his brother (her husband, Quent) at 1 a.m. Thursday with an update.
“He said, ‘My house is a loss. We are working to save yours,’” she said.
At 2:26 a.m. he told his brother that their property had “no trees, but the house is good.”
“Cleve was up there trying to save his own house but it went quickly,” Kara Williams said, adding that three trucks worked on it. “He has spent decades saving people, animals and structures so it’s profoundly ironic that his house couldn’t be saved.”
Bill McCauley and his wife, Andee, were able to corral their two tuxedo cats, Bug and Elle, when the mandatory evacuation was issued, just hours before their house at 227 Lava Drive was engulfed in flames.
Everything else is a complete loss, they said Thursday evening after a community meeting at Basalt High School.
They evacuated around 10 p.m. Wednesday and were across Highway 82 in the City Market parking lot at Willits Town Center watching the flames get closer to their home. Bill estimates it burned between 12:20 a.m. and 5:30 a.m.
He said he never has seen anything like what he witnessed overnight Wednesday into the early hours Thursday.
“It just blew up and came over the hill,” said Bill, who has lived in the house for 32 years.
They are staying at a local hotel and have been embraced by their tight-knit community. It is a role they aren’t used to, Andee said.
“Bill and I have always been the ones taking people in, so this is a different hat for us,” she said. “We have friends who are beyond gracious.”
Andee said all that matters is that their kids and children, who now live on the Front Range, are healthy.
Kara and Quent Williams also lost a house, located near the McCauley’s at 223 Lava Drive, which is just outside of the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. The three-bedroom house was a rental and their tenant was able to evacuate safely, Kara Williams said. The house had been in the Williams family since the early 1980s.
Cleve has been a volunteer for the Basalt & Rural Fire Protection District for 27 years. He had been working the road below some power lines Wednesday where the fire originated Tuesday evening.
When reached by The Aspen Times on Thursday afternoon, Cleve was back on the fire line. The call was dropped due to spotty coverage.
On Wednesday night, Cleve evacuated his family — wife, Kerry, and their son, Cole, 16 — from their single-family, four-bedroom home. Their daughter, Devin, is in California attending college, Kara Williams said.
Her family evacuated around 10 p.m. Wednesday and is staying at a friend’s house at River Valley Ranch.
She hasn’t been able to get back to her property and is praying everything is intact.
“For now, our house has been spared,” Kara Williams said. “Right now, we are in shock. What’s most difficult (is) I haven’t seen it. We know nothing.”
Williams said she feels for her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who raised their family in the house he built in the 1990s.
“Of course, my heart breaks for Cleve and Kerry who have lived in that house for 20 years,” she said.
Kara Williams posted on Facebook saying, “Just pray this fire gets under control soon. Local firefighters are saying they’ve never see anything like this before — its unpredictability is unparalleled.”
The Williams are part of the Crawford family, which founded modern-day El Jebel.
After Thursday’s community meeting, the McCauleys looked across the valley to Basalt Mountain as the sun poked through the clouds and helicopters were dropping water on the fire.
“See that sky?” Andee asked. “You just know something good is coming.”
“And you see that?” Bill said as he pointed to the west. “That’s God.”
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”