Firefighter at center of fight for El Jebel: ‘We thought we were going to lose the trailer park’ | AspenTimes.com

Firefighter at center of fight for El Jebel: ‘We thought we were going to lose the trailer park’

Looking across Highway 82 toward El Jebel, the night sky turns orange from the Lake Christine fire after the winds shift, forcing additional evacuations in the area on Wednesday, July 4, in El Jebel.

Basalt Fire Department Capt. Brian Davies and two colleagues thought they had wrapped up a long day on the line at the Lake Christine Fire shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday when all hell broke loose in what authorities described as a "prolific ember shower."

The fire crested the ridge across Highway 82 from Whole Foods, picked up steam and raced toward the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. Davies and Basalt firefighters Steve Howard and Bryce Halverson were assigned to protect structures on Prentice Trail in the heart of El Jebel as swirling winds gusting to 50 mph whipped flames their way.

"It was kind of scary," Davies said while still on the fire line Thursday evening. "We definitely thought we were going to lose the trailer park for a couple of minutes."

Mark Skrede, a resident of the mobile home park since 1986, was feeling a sense of ease at dusk. The fire was far to the east and seemed to be lying down for the night. He ran an errand and upon return saw wind-whipped flames racing down the slopes. He thought his home of 32 years would soon be incinerated.

"Oh, yeah, totally toast," Skrede said.

He scrambled to alert his neighbors that they had to evacuate their homes. Law and fire officials ordered a mandatory evacuation at 10 p.m. and police with bullhorns arrived to order people to leave immediately.

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Skrede drove up El Jebel Road to get a visual on the fire.

"The flames were just leaping across the mountain but not igniting anything (initially)," Skrede said. The fire was high up the hillside but clearly making its way down the slope.

He knew it was time to drive out of the area.

It was pandemonium in the El Jebel area as a blanket of black and white smoke was lit by an eerie orange glow from the burning brush below.

There were pops when sap in the pinyon and juniper super-heated and ignited like candles. Voodoo winds swirled from a different direction every few minutes. Sirens wailed as police moved people out and firefighters moved engines into position to protect structures.

At the east end of Prentice Drive, Davies and his team prepared to face the approaching wall of flames.

"We were thinking we'd like to save these trailers," Davies said.

The flames swept in so quickly the team was unable to clear vegetation in front of the residences they were assigned to protect. There was rocky terrain and thick brush on the east side of the trailers. Davies said they weren't going to get caught in the terrain trap when the flames arrived. One of the three always worked as a spotter to make sure they weren't flanked by flames or got caught if an ember landed behind them.

"We were really aware of how fast they were moving," he said. "We were paying attention and we were not going to put ourselves in jeopardy."

In addition to facing personal peril, most firefighters were fielding calls from their families seeking advice on whether to evacuate, Davies said. It is particularly difficult defending your own community from a raging wildland fire, he said.

The fight in the mobile home park was so intense that two stick-built homes on the eastern outskirts ignited and burned just one street away on Lava Drive. Davies' crew was among several that worked until 4:30 a.m. to protect residences. Crews from multi fire departments were also in the mobile home park, including some from Eagle and Summit counties, the Union Hotshots and others. Aspen Fire Department's engine 62 was initially positioned in Aspen Junction but the crew was transferred to the mobile home park when the fire burned that direction.

As the battle heated up, it was evident to observers that firefighters shot flares between themselves and the approaching flames to burn out some of the fuel.

"When the fire is making a run like that, our best option sometimes is to burn out the fuels between a good solid line (and the fire) to burn those fuels up before the fire impacts it," said Roger Staats, deputy incident commander with the Northern Rockies Incident Command team. "That's a very common way to fight fire."

The efforts of all local firefighters were hailed Thursday night in a community meeting held by federal firefighters from the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

"First and foremost, you need to thank your local districts," Keith Brink, operations section chief for the team, told a crowd of more than 200 people at Basalt High School on Thursday evening. "They saved a lot of houses."

The crowd broke into loud, sustained applause.

Editor's note: This story was edited to reflect that multiple fire agencies helped save residences in the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. Information was added about the effort to burn fuels ahead of the fire to ease its intensity.

scondon@aspentimes.com