Fire ignites at Basalt Shooting Range | AspenTimes.com

Fire ignites at Basalt Shooting Range

Scott Condon The Aspen Times

A wildfire broke out at the Basalt Shooting Range on Saturday and charred 2 acres of pinyon and juniper trees before firefighters scaled steep slopes and prevented flames from climbing farther up a ridge and into a high-end residential neighborhood.

The fire broke out shortly before noon and put the midvalley on edge when thick, black smoke plumed up from the location less than one mile from downtown Basalt. The Basalt Fire Department ordered the evacuation of a portion of The Wilds housing complex as a precaution. Residents were allowed back in the midafternoon when it was deemed safe.

Basalt Police Sgt. Penny Paxton was among the first emergency responders on the scene, along with an Eagle County sheriff’s deputy. She said flames were leaping higher than the 20-foot trees in the charred area.

The fire broke out on the target side of the rifle range at the Basalt Shooting Range, a public facility operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Wildlife officers have kept the range open despite high fire danger, but they have prohibited use of exploding targets, steel-jacketed bullets and tracer bullets. Those devices can produce sparks and start a fire, according to Perry Will, Area 8 wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Will initially suspected exploding targets or other prohibited devices were used, but discussions with witnesses and evidence at the origin ruled out the exploding targets or tracers, he said. The cause of the fire is the subject of an investigation led by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, he said.

The shooting range was closed during the firefighting effort and will remain closed while Colorado Parks and Wildlife assesses whether to reopen it in the dry conditions, Will said.

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The hillside that burned behind the rifle range is part of the Lake Christine State Wildlife Area – state land within Eagle County. Will said his officers have several leads to pursue regarding the people who were using the rifle range. They could face charges and potentially be responsible for the cost of fighting the fire if they undertook any prohibited act and are convicted, he said.

Paxton said that when she arrived, other users of the shooting range had grabbed fire extinguishers and were trying to put out the flames.

When Basalt firefighters got to the scene, the fire had burned as much as three-quarters of an acre and was moving “fairly quickly up the hill,” said Matt Avidan, deputy chief of Emergency Medical Services at Basalt Fire Department. “The concern originally was the power lines.”

Major distribution lines, the thicker ones, run behind the shooting range, a short distance from the 2 acres burned by the fire.

The fire was contained, Avidan said in an interview at 1:35 p.m., but there was a patch of green within the fire’s perimeter that firefighters were concerned about reigniting. Swirling winds created the danger of sending embers and sparks flying and spreading the fire.

The steep hill and the heat created a challenge for firefighters from Basalt, Carbondale, Snowmass Village and Aspen. The fire was within Basalt’s district; the other departments responded to a call for aid. Firefighters from the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit, based in Grand Junction and Rifle, also sent personnel and aircraft to the fire.

A single-engine airplane passed low and dropped a line of red retardant on the upslope side of the fire at about 2 p.m. The retardant was dropped between the fire’s edge and power line. That allowed firefighters to concentrate on the area inside the fire’s perimeter, Avidan said.

Basalt firefighters initially scrambled to head off the east end of the fire from moving up a slope.

“We stopped the right flank from going up the hill because it was going faster and toward the wooden power line (poles). Then we stopped the left flank,” Avidan said.

The fire moved roughly 400 vertical feet up the slope, though estimating was tough because the perimeter wasn’t in a straight line.

The evacuation of the section of The Wilds on Promontory Road was a precaution.

“They were originally evacuated because there was enough smoke that we didn’t know much and how fast the fire was going,” Avidan said. “They were never in that much of a danger. We were trying to get ahead of it because if the fire on this hill got out of control, we wouldn’t have time to get back up to Promontory.”

The water for the firefighting effort was shuttled to the scene by tenders, trucks that store and carry large amounts of water.

Avidan said the wildfire proves how dangerous conditions remain despite recent rains.

“The problem is, because we got so hot and so dry so early in the summer, part of the fuels are already dead and dormant,” Avidan said. “No matter how much rain we get, we’re not going to remoisturize those parts of the fuels. The second part is trees that are this big need a lot of water to rejuvenate.

scondon@aspentimes.com

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