Fire ravages two decades of work | AspenTimes.com

Fire ravages two decades of work

Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

BASALT ” Basalt resident Jerome Osentowski watched helplessly early Sunday morning as a fire ravaged a greenhouse where he had nurtured exotic plants over almost two decades.

“Twenty years of work down the drain,” a dejected Osentowski said while assessing the damage later in the day.

Osentowski woke up shortly before 3 a.m. and found the fire “raging.” He called 911, grabbed a computer from his home and drove two vehicles down the hill from his secluded property on the lower slopes of Basalt Mountain.

The Basalt Fire Department coaxed two four-wheel-drive fire engines two miles up the narrow, winding Cedar Drive to Osentowski’s property. The first crews arrived at 3:23 a.m. and found the 1,500-square-foot greenhouse engulfed in flames, according to Deputy Chief Jerry Peetz. A corner of an adjacent building was on fire.

Firefighters pumped water from a pond on the property to douse the flames. Water-storage trucks called tenders couldn’t make it to the site, so the four-wheel-drive engines took turns shuttling down for water.

Peetz said flames could have spread to other structures on the compact site easily. Osentowski had a total of three greenhouses on the site, along with chicken coops, garages and his house.

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“I thought my house was going to go,” he said.

Peetz credited the volunteer firefighters with acting quickly to contain the flames to the greenhouse of origin. He said the structure was a complete loss, even though about one-quarter of it was still standing.

While there was no loss of human life, the fire was still catastrophic. Osentowski is a permaculturist who has perfected a method of using the natural resources of the ecosystem to grow perennials on his sun-drenched, south-facing property. The largest of the greenhouses ” the one that burned ” had banana trees, pomegranates, vegetables and herbs. It was packed with tropical and subtropical plants.

Osentowski said he showcased that greenhouse when trying to win consulting jobs. It was also the focal point for workshops he offered. “That’s my business. That’s my calling card,” he said.

There was a small sitting area called Pebble Beach in the middle of the greenhouse. Osentowski often would bring guests there to sit among the foliage to soak in the setting and showcase the possibilities of a greenhouse.

The fire also torched a dream Osentowski had about growing a new generation of fruit trees that descended from varieties that homesteaders brought to the valley, sometimes 100 years ago and more. Osentowski started the Heritage Fruit Tree Program in 2004 with his friend Michael Thompson. They inventoried trees from Aspen to Peach Valley near Silt, and identified those in the best shape. Osentowski grafted cuts off 200 apricot, peach and pear trees. He stored the saplings that resulted from his successful grafts in a nursery outside the greenhouse. The fire and firefighting effort wiped out nearly all of them.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but officials from the Basalt and Aspen fire departments suspect it started in a sauna room that contained a wood-burning stove used to heat the greenhouse during cold weather. Osentowski said he used that system for 15 years without a problem. He fired it up Saturday night for the first time this season, as forecasts predicted temperatures plunging below freezing. Osentowski lamented that a rodent might have stashed something that ignited in the system.

Osentowski said he couldn’t imagine how to proceed until after talking to his insurance adjuster Monday. He noted that he is 66 years old: “I don’t have the energy to start over again,” he said.

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com

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