Number of firefighters on Lake Christine Fire grows to 459 | AspenTimes.com

Number of firefighters on Lake Christine Fire grows to 459

Crews battling Basalt fire remember Storm King victims on anniversary

It is not lost on the firefighters who have descended on El Jebel that they are battling a blaze similar to the Storm King Fire outside of Glenwood Springs that took the lives 14 men and women 24 years ago.

Just before sunrise Friday, hundreds of firefighters crawled out of their tents at Crown Mountain Park to gather for a briefing prior to heading into the field to battle the Lake Christine Fire above El Jebel.

With the sun burning through the smoke-filled sky, the briefing began with a moment of silence to remember the Storm King victims who died July 6, 1994.

Deputy Incident Commander Roger Staats reminded the crews that this region is not to be underestimated and to stay safe.

"This is a pretty hazardous area for firefighters," he said, with his voice trembling, holding back tears. "We have challenging terrain, so have your head on a swivel and look out for each other."

Since the Lake Christine Fire broke out Tuesday, hundreds of fire personnel from 20 states have joined local firefighters in battling a blaze that is now more than 5,250 acres and 3 percent contained. There could be more than 500 firefighters here by the end of the weekend.

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At the briefing, they were warned that Friday's conditions and the fire itself are reminiscent of what happened on Storm King Mountain in 1994.

Outflow winds and lightning from a thunderstorm could increase the fire's intensity and spread quickly, making an uphill run. There also was concern about higher elevation oak having the potential to reburn.

If there are any firefighters who can handle that intensity, it is the Union Hotshots, a crew mostly based out of La Grande, Oregon. The elite team of 21 wildland firefighters — the most highly trained in the country — has been on the El Jebel scene since Wednesday.

They were greeted their first night with rare and challenging conditions when the winds and fire intensified, putting hundreds of homes in jeopardy.

Hotshot crew member Eric Jorgensen said his crew split into two groups and were stationed in two neighborhoods.

"The first day we had all of our rigs parked in people's driveways," he said. "We hiked up the hill where the fires were above and tried to pick up that direct edge and make sure structures were not involved."

A second hotshot crew, from Prescott, Arizona, arrived Friday.

"They are the elite of the elites," said operations chief Keith Brink, at a community meeting held Thursday. "We put them in the toughest spots. The most technical operations there are on a fire."

Jorgensen said it has been challenging out there.

"There are steep slopes, big rocks and we've been trying to pick up the pieces where there is heat and get everything tied together," he said.

Jorgensen had the opportunity last year to hike Storm King Mountain, where several members of an Oregon-based hotshot team died in the infamous fire.

"It's sobering," he said. "You can see from the terrain that they wanted to start punching line down the hill. They had a safety zone. They were looking at the right things and then the thunderstorm came through and ignited the fire under them and that is the same thing that is going on with this fire, it's sitting. It's waiting for the next thunderstorm to push it."

Local firefighters were lauded by federal officials, who took over the fire July 5.

"You need to thank your local rural districts for the work they did (Wednesday night)," Brink said during the community meeting. "They saved a lot of houses. Very impressive. They did a hell of a job."

Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said Friday he was amazed watching the crews defend the El Jebel Mobile Home Park during the early hours of Thursday when the prevailing upvalley winds shifted downvalley, catching firefighters off guard.

"I've been doing this for over 30 years and I've never seen that kind of heroism," Balentine said, adding he and his fellow firefighters saw 200-foot-high flames underneath power lines. "Watching these engine crews … flames were impeding on the houses and they were able to save them."

Incident Commander Mike Almas described that night to Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Cory Gardner at a briefing Friday.

"It was a rare event," Almas said. "The local resources did a tremendous job protecting the homes and the infrastructure."

Balentine, who was in the field Friday leading a structure protection task force on the western side of the blaze, said a new 20-man hand crew had just arrived.

"There's still a lot of hot spots near the (mobile home) park," he said.

As firefighters came back to camp Friday evening as the sun was setting, full of soot and dirt, they appeared positive about the direction of the fire.

Said a one crew member checking out for the evening at the incident command center at the El Jebel Community Center: "At least it's going away from town."

csackariason@aspentimes.com