Flaring up: Fire crew made decision to fire flares to help save El Jebel during Lake Christine Fire
Firefighters found themselves in a predicament the night of July 4 when whirling, savage winds drove the Lake Christine Fire directly toward the El Jebel Mobile Home Park.
Even though fire departments from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and from Grand Junction to Summit County sent in personnel and equipment to aid Basalt, the lines were stretched thin.
“We just didn’t have enough fire trucks to protect all the structures,” said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson, who led the firefighting effort.
One of the leaders in the field, Greater Eagle Fire Protection District Chief Doug Cupp, sought a green light to use flares to start a fire between the mobile home park and the fast-approaching wildland fire. The strategy was to break the fire’s momentum and give the firefighters a better chance to control the flames.
Thompson said drip torches weren’t an option because the resulting fire would be too close to the structures in the little amount of time they had to react. They needed to use the flares to set the fire farther away.
“How it works is as the fire is coming over the hill, it’s sucking in oxygen to keep itself sustained,” Thompson said.
A wildland fire also will suck in an intentionally lit fire, temporarily slowing its momentum and robbing the wildland fire of fuel.
“It kind of mitigates it,” Thompson said. “Instead of a 40-mile-per-hour wind hitting you in the chest, if you light the fire at the right time, it draws it. It will suck it. That’s exactly what happened that night.”
It was a daunting scenario. Most of the firefighters were unfamiliar with the terrain. The roads were narrow. Power lines were overhead. It was after dark. A fire was approaching. Their adrenaline was raging. It was very chaotic.
“When they pull in there, there are people moving out. There are cop cars running all over the place,” Thompson said. “(Firefighters) are trying to help the residents get (stuff) in their cars so they can get out of their way and they can get the fire trucks in position.”
He told the Vail Daily last July that 40-some firefighters were on the eastern edge of the mobile home park that night. They figured using flares was their only choice.
“There was absolutely no margin for error,” Cupp told the Vail Daily last year. “We knew if we were to lose any homes, it would be a domino situation and we would lose half of the town.”
Cupp didn’t respond to repeated requests for an interview in the past month.
Thompson said the fire command endorsed Cupp’s plan to use flares.
“The rule was, one trailer catches on fire, you guys are out of there,” he said.
The wildfire flares burn for a shorter duration but at a much higher temperature than road flares. Firefighters hurled them as far away from the mobile homes as they could. Cupp’s team also had some flare guns. Thompson estimated they used hundreds of flares, given the piles of discarded caps he saw when touring the area the next day.
“They lit it at the right time,” he said. “If they would have waited too long or lit it too soon, it’s blowing back on you and you’re catching embers all over the place from the fire you started. So, if you don’t do it right, the effects are horrible.”
Instead, the effects were miraculous. There was a straight line where the fire stopped, just short of the residences.
“They saved 200 homes,” said Robert Hubbell, president of Crawford Properties, which owns the mobile home park.
With housing costs so high in the Roaring Fork Valley, it’s tough to imagine how the individuals and families living there could have remained had they lost their homes and possessions, he said.
“We’re just grateful,” Hubbell said. “It’s really amazing.”
He used an overhead image of the site to create a postcard that displays the situation. One half shows the charred earth. The other half shows the intact neighborhood.
“A community saved … El Jebel, CO … eternally grateful,” the postcard says.
It was taken to the fire headquarters in ensuing days as a way of thanking all the firefighters who answered the call.