Hickenlooper says state shooting range policies will be assessed after Lake Christine Fire

The landscape has changed significantly in the midvalley since the evening of July 3. This view is looking toward Capitol Peak from near the point of origin by the Basalt shooting range.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

Gov. John Hickenlooper will ask Colorado Parks and Wildlife to review management practices and policies for shooting ranges when fire restrictions are in place, he said Friday at a news conference in El Jebel.

He said he wants a better understanding of the circumstances of the Lake Christine Fire, which was allegedly started by a man and woman from El Jebel who were firing illegal tracer rounds shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“We’ll make sure we evaluate every one of our operation guidelines,” Hickenlooper said after a briefing on the fire. “Obviously, something like that should never happen when you have fire restrictions like we had in place. We’ll figure out why it happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again. I guarantee it.”

The Basalt shooting range is operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and open to the public. Use of tracer ammunition is always banned. Other restrictions were in place during what’s known as Stage II fire restrictions, which are in place on all public and private lands in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Hickenlooper indicated the state is participating in the investigation of the cause as well as examining its policies. The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office cited the suspects, Richard Karl Miller, 23, and Allison Sarah Marcus, 22, both of El Jebel, for fourth-degree arson, a misdemeanor. Authorities said felony charges might ultimately be filed.

“Obviously that’s something we’re investigating very carefully, the fact that allegedly tracers were used and no one stopped them,” Hickenlooper said. “(The fact) that went on for some period of time is very disconcerting, and I guarantee you we will go through every moment as best we can resurrect what happened.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife closed the Basalt shooting range and other ranges throughout its Northwest Colorado region Wednesday. For some people, it was a good decision made too late. Numerous midvalley residents attending a community meeting at Basalt High School on Wednesday evening expressed frustration that the Basalt shooting range was open even though fire restrictions banning everything from campfires to charcoal grills were in place Tuesday.

However, numerous sportsmen share the view expressed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife that appropriate use of the shooting range will not start a fire even during a dry time.

Perry Will, district wildlife manager for area 8, defended the wildlife division’s decision to keep the shooting ranges open prior to July 4. He said if the division wasn’t providing a safe place to shoot, conditions could be even more dangerous because target shooters would be using other public lands. U.S. Forest Service officials have similar concerns.

The Basalt facility uses a range that has an area scraped to dirt behind the targets so that fires cannot break. The point of origin was on the wooded hillside adjacent to the scraped area.

The agency released a statement Wednesday explaining its position on keeping the range open.

“The Basalt range is a great facility and is a very safe range,” J.T. Romatzke, Northwest regional manager for CPW, said in a statement. “The fire was caused by one person’s irresponsible behavior, not standard behavior practiced at a range.

State Sen. Kerry Donovan, whose district includes Eagle County, said after Hickenlooper’s news conference she supports reassessing policies at shooting ranges with the goal of making them safer, not shutting them down. She noted that the Lake Christine Fire was allegedly started by an illegal activity. The Basalt facility is not regularly staffed and it’s unknown if the funds exist to do so.

Illegal use of public shooting ranges has been an issue in the region this summer. The Vail Daily reported Friday illegal shooting at gun ranges in Wolcott and Minturn last month triggered wildfires. A fire at the Bureau of Land Management shooting range above Wolcott started after a shooter allegedly targeted dry sagebrush beyond the normal target area.

A small fire was quickly extinguished at Minturn when someone shot at a flammable target.

Hickenlooper was asked Friday if it is “harder to ban use of a gun range” than use of fireworks or campfires during a broad restriction.

“If it is, it won’t be,” Hickenlooper replied.

He again pledged that the state will look at circumstances of how fires can be sparked at a rifle range and if management adjustments can be made.