Firefighting force downsized as Lake Christine Fire containment increases to 90% | AspenTimes.com

Firefighting force downsized as Lake Christine Fire containment increases to 90%

Federal officials defended decisions made earlier in the battle against the Lake Christine Fire during a community meeting Tuesday night and they assured people it's safe to downsize the firefighting effort now.

Containment increased to 90 percent Tuesday with the fire holding at 12,588 acres. The Rocky Mountain Area Type 2 Incident Management Team Black that wrestled the fire under control over the past 12 days exited last night. A type 3 team, adapted to managing smaller firefighting efforts, took the reins.

Shane Greer, the incident commander for Team Black, said 51 firefighters with engines and one heavy and one light helicopter at their disposal will remain on the fire. They are focused on the east edge, high on Basalt Mountain, in terrain that's largely inaccessible. Firefighters haven't been able to create a fire line right at the fire's edge because of the hazardous terrain, Greer said, but they have built an "indirect" fire line a short distance back.

There is an "extremely small" risk that the fire will take off to the east, he said.

"The resources we're leaving here, if need be, could go out to the indirect line and light a back fire," he said. That would starve the wildland fire of fuel.

White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams said the amount of personnel has to match the risk of the fire.

"We're not going to forget about this fire or ignore it," he said.

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However, a fire near Rifle grew by about 1,000 acres on Tuesday and one near Meeker added at least 600 acres, he said. Both are on the White River National Forest. A pre-evacuation notice is in place for seasonal cabins and a lodge because of the Cabin Lake Fire near Meeker.

"We're not going to take the eye off the ball but we have higher priorities," he said. "This fire's in great shape."

The bad news, Fitzwilliams said, is the Roaring Fork Valley will likely absorb smoke from the Rifle fire just as the Lake Christine Fire is easing up.

"It's just one of those summer, folks. It just is," he said.

Greer was temporarily in the hot seat at the meeting when a woman in the audience asked why a greater effort wasn't made to snuff the fire during the week of July 15, when it was below 7,000 acres. The fire later reached popular trails and consumed thousands of additional acres of forest, she noted.

The original type 2 incident management team on the fire was replaced July 16 with a type 3 team and the firefighting force was decreased. However, hot, windy days blew embers into heavy timber higher on the mountain. Many Missouri Heights residents became worried July 18 when the fire grew by 800 acres and sent a smoke column soaring into the atmosphere.

Greer explained that a collective decision had been made by all parties at the table that it was too dangerous to send firefighters into the hazardous terrain where the fire was burning at the base of a cliff as of July 15. The danger to firefighters was too high while the risk to property — other than trees — was low, he said. The conditions ended up being aligned to spread the fire, he said.

Erin Carey, Aspen-Sopris deputy district ranger, added that the incident command system used for emergencies is designed to be nimble to match the complexity of a fire. At the time the type 2 team was replaced by a smaller type 3 team, the complexity was diminished and the weather was favorable, she said. That dictated that a smaller force be allocated to the Lake Christine Fire, especially with all the fires throughout the West. But that doesn't mean there wasn't active firefighting.

"Let me assure you, the type 3 team took a very assertive approach with the fire," Carey said. "They actually got in some direct line on the Missouri Heights (area). They were not simply in patrol status. They were right on the line and accomplished quite a bit of black (extinguishing fire) on that side."

The weather changed and the complexity of the fire increased when embers pushed the fire to the mountaintop, so the firefighting effort was ramped back up, she said.

Greer said the fire on the 10 percent of the area that isn't contained actually isn't growing, either. When asked to describe what the fire is doing in that area, he said it is smoldering and occasionally breaking into small, campfire-sized flames in steep, rocky terrain. However, the fire hasn't advanced in that area in one week, he said.

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He also told a small audience at the meeting to expect small pockets of unburned trees and vegetation within the burn area to occasionally smoke and burn. That doesn't create a threat, he said.

The type 3 team that is taking over the fire is led by Brian Anderson.

(Editor's note: This story was corrected to show that the fire near Meeker has spurred pre-evacuation notices rather than evacuations.)

scondon@aspentimes.com