Hometown heroes: Snowmass fire district responds to Lake Christine Fire in full force

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Snowmass firefighters, from left, Gregor Dekleva, Jesse Tanner and Ben Smith were among the first to respond to the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

From the night before the Lake Christine Fire flared up until now, every member of the nearly 30-person Snowmass-Wildcat Fire Protection District has served some role in protecting and helping save the community.

Whether the Snowmass crew was battling the flames on the front lines, helping families evacuate their homes, fielding calls at the station or addressing the “rest of the world,” as they deemed all non-Lake Christine Fire coverage, the team continues to extinguish literal and metaphorical fires. Of note, the two districts (Snowmass and Basalt) have been joining forces since earlier this year to create a new, joint entity called the Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority. The Lake Christine Fire will not delay the merger, which will be made official Jan. 1, as intended, deputy fire chief Kevin Issel confirmed July 24.

In an effort to acknowledge the Herculaneum efforts of the village crew, the Snowmass Sun sat down with three first responders — Ben Smith, Jesse Tanner and Gregor Dekleva — to share their experiences during what each considered the largest and most damaging fire of their careers.

Smith, a full-time firefighter and emergency medical technician, lives at the Basalt fire station and has called Snowmass home since 2014.

Tanner, a native and current resident of Aspen, also joined the district as a firefighter and emergency medical technician about four years ago.

Dekleva, originally from Monument, lives in Missouri Heights and has been with the Snowmass fire district for five years.

When the Lake Christine Fire erupted on July 4, Smith was dealing with other calls in Snowmass (the district received eight or nines calls that holiday unrelated to what was happening in Basalt). Tanner was off duty after his shift July 3, when the Lake Christine Fire started, spanned until 1 a.m.

Dekleva, however, was in the heat of things July 4 in Basalt for about 24 hours.

Initially, he was assigned to “structure protection” and checking that residents in certain areas had evacuated their homes.

“It was kind of chaotic, (but) it was amazing how quickly they got everybody out of there,” Dekleva said. “I was really impressed.”

Dekleva briefly mentioned fleeing his Missouri Heights home. But what he omitted from his story was that his wife, 1-year-old daughter and three horses were part of the evacuation, said Dekleva’s fire captain Scott Arthur, noting the firefighters’ typically humble nature.

As the day and blazes progressed July 4, Dekleva’s tasks ranged from spraying down burning power poles to helping the elite “Union Hotshots” firefighting team with more technical work.

“We were just watching that fire move down the hill,” Dekleva. “I’ve never seen fire behavior like that at night, I can say that for sure.”

He explained that lower temperatures and higher humidity at night generally tends to help “muffle” fire. The Lake Christine Fire, however, was a different animal, and high, sustained winds — he estimated gusts up to 25 to 30 mph that night — only fueled the flames.

“It was kind of surreal being in your town, and some place that you drive by every day, and just seeing that (fire) come down the hill like that,” Dekleva said.

From Tanner’s perspective, “It was a pretty unbelievable atmosphere driving on (Highway) 82 near El Jebel. There’s fire trucks and police cars, there’s fire on the mountain, it’s dark, it’s windy, there’s also medical calls and, as we’re driving around, we’re seeing ambulances with lights and sirens on (and) fire trucks.

“You just look around a second … you see stuff like this on TV or you’ve been somewhere like this, but to see it in your hometown.”

Snowmass Sun: How would you describe the experience as a whole?

Ben Smith: Amazing. I’d never seen anything like that. An airshow. That was really the coolest part … we definitely saw all the air resources in town … the fire activity was pretty amazing to see as well.

Jesse Tanner: I had never been on an incident like that, so for me it was soaking up everything from all angles. It was pretty incredible to see the coordinated effort and how many people who were working out there in union, seemingly flawless. … To see the incident command system actually working in a scale that large — we’re used to working smaller incidences around here — was pretty incredible to see. The air show was ridiculous. You couldn’t look at any piece of the sky and not see two or three (aircraft).

Gregor Dekleva: It was an amazing team effort by local resources up and down the valley and the (Interstate) 70 corridor there. A lot of people did a lot of great things.

SS: Have you ever experienced anything like the Lake Christine Fire?

BS: No, that was my first fire in that size (and) that scope.

JT: That was my first one as well. I’m a fairly newer firefighter and that’s certainly the first I’ve ever seen anything like that.

GD: Being that close to that many structures and seeing the fire come down the hill like that, that was a first one for me as well.

JT: At night, in your background, literally.

SS: Has this experience changed your perspective or made you more hyper-aware of wildfires?

BS: We were aware that it was going to be a busy season, just with the snowpack and all of that, … but it certainly opened our eyes (and) helped us work together.

JT: You had this sense that everyone was there and working together. Right away, it’s this mutual respect and we’re all here for each other; whether you wear this shirt or that shirt, we’re all here for the same purpose. It strengthened that bond that maybe wasn’t always seen all the time.

SS: How would you describe the response from the local community?

BS: Amazing would be a better word for that one. Overwhelming would be another word. I mean, look behind us (pointing to wall filled with thank you notes, cards and hand-drawn pictures from children).

GD: It just kind of shows what kind of community we have here.

JT: It was special. This is a special place where the community does mean a lot.

SS: Did you ever feel scared?

BS: I don’t know; you got a job to do. You’re scared for the people who are at risk of structure loss — that’s the last thing we want to see. (As far as our) personal safety … firefighter safety was always No. 1 before we got in the fire line.

GD: It goes back to our training, you know what’s going on, how you’re going to get out of there if you need to, (and) making sure you have good communication with your supervisor.

JT: I wouldn’t say scared is the right word. But your awareness is very heightened. All your senses are definitely on edge.

SS: Is there anything you would like to add or share about this experience?

BS: I think it’s important that the community knows that we appreciate everything they done. It’s been overwhelming.