Lake Christine Fire grows nearly 800 acres, type 2 incident management team returning

Smoke rises above El Jebel on Thursday as the Lake Christine Fire continues to burn. The fire grew to the southeast Thursday, requiring a pre-evacuation notice for Cedar Drive in Basalt and neighborhoods in lower Fryingpan Valley.
Bridget Hagen/The Aspen Times

The explosive growth of the Lake Christine Fire on Wednesday and Thursday spurred the federal government to bring more resources and expertise back to the fray on Basalt Mountain.

The management of the incident will be turned back over to a type 2 team, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams announced Thursday. Incident management was downgraded from type 2 to type 3 on Monday as the fire appeared to be calming down and structures were deemed safe.

However, the fire grew by nearly 800 acres in the hot, dry weather Wednesday and was expected to grow by several hundreds more by this morning. The fire topped 7,700 acres by Thursday, according to public information officer Mike McMillan.

“In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen more fire activity, and with more fire activity comes more complexity,” Fitzwilliams said.

That became clear Thursday evening when Cedar Drive, Toner Creek, Seven Castles and Taylor Road residents were placed on a pre-evacuation notice. Cedar Drive is on the hillside above Basalt. Seven Castles, with 100-plus homes, is in the lower Fryingpan Valley.

Residents of those areas were told at about 6:20 p.m. that there was “increased fire behavior on the eastern flank” of the fire and they should be prepared for the possibility of evacuation. Engines and crews trained in structure protection were deployed to those neighborhoods Thursday.

The Rocky Mountain Area Incident Management Team Black headed by Shane Greer will take over the firefighting effort at 6 a.m. today. A type 2 team is able to access a broader spectrum of resources and has a bigger crew with more expertise to handle that larger effort.

There were 178 personnel on the fire as of Wednesday, according to an update issued by the incident management team Thursday morning. That includes two hotshot crews, one type 2 hand crew, two 10-person specialized teams, eight engines and three helicopters. However, in a media briefing Thursday afternoon, fire officials said there were roughly 240 personnel on the fire and the number was expected to grow.

Many midvalley residents became uneasy Wednesday as the smoke column grew throughout the day as the fire roared back to life. Many people posted pictures on social media and some asked if they should be concerned.

There was little communication from federal or local authorities other than alerts that said the fire was producing more smoke as it crept into different fuel types. The fire has been in oak, pinion and juniper. Now the flames have reached conifers in the dark timber on the northern side of the fire, above Spring Park Reservoir in Missouri Heights.

Alison “Ali” Richards, an incident commander trainee with the Upper Colorado Type 3 Incident Command Team, said crews tried to “pin” the fire against rocky terrain on Basalt Mountain. Two Chinook helicopters dropping water and three single-engine air tankers dropping retardant on the northern edge aided two hotshot teams and other grounds crews.

“Yesterday in our actions we were really getting after it,” Richards said Thursday.

The weather didn’t cooperate. The temperature topped 90 degrees, winds gusted and provided spot opportunities where embers blew into new fuels.

“It didn’t work out for us,” Richards said. “Our folks were out there working as hard as they could and we had a great plan. Part of the plan was effective. We were able to pick up pieces of that line and secure some additional line.”

But the wind blew embers higher in elevation than the rock outcrops where the firefighters were tying their line.

“Unfortunately, it got up and established up on top,” Richards said.

That’s the ongoing challenge of the Lake Christine Fire and one that means it could burn for weeks. The rocky terrain on the northern edge includes lots of cliffs. Since there are no structures at risk on upper Basalt Mountain, fire leaders won’t endanger the firefighters by placing them into the most dangerous terrain.

The firefighting effort was equally intense Thursday. Large air tankers could be seen from Missouri Heights dropping retardant on the northwestern side of the fire.

Winds on Thursday were pushing the fire to the southwest, according to Richards. So crews and engines trained in structure protection were stationed on Cedar Drive, on the upper outskirts of Basalt, as well as Toner Creek and Seven Castles, neighborhoods in lower Fryingpan Valley.

“The type 3 team is recognizing the fire environment has been changing and we are responding appropriately,” Richards said.

Karen Schroyer, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger with the U.S. Forest Service, said the goal remains full suppression of the fire, but she also acknowledged that the fire is burning toward the top of Basalt Mountain and the backcountry beyond.

“The fire is moving in the direction of Red Table Road,” Schroyer said.

Greer, the new incident commander, said he will bring in a “short type 2 team,” which has about 30 management personnel rather than the usual 60 required for a full-blown effort. New resources will be integrated with those already enlisted by the type 3 team.

Fitzwilliams said the bringing back a type 2 team doesn’t mean it was the wrong decision to downgrade to a type 3 team Monday. The fire behavior, weather conditions and reduced threat to structures dictated a downgrade, he said.

“I would do the same thing over again,” he said.

The incident command system is flexible and responsive to match the size of the effort with the size of the fire, according to Fitzwilliams.