Loose wheel likely caused Basalt fire | AspenTimes.com

Loose wheel likely caused Basalt fire

Basalt firefighters plan their attack on a wildlands fire near Aspen Junction in Basalt on Friday.

A wildfire that flared up near homes in Aspen Junction and sparked an evacuation of parts of Basalt on Friday was likely caused when a pickup lost a wheel, investigators said Monday.

A blue Toyota pickup was headed downvalley when the mishap occurred, according to Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott. The fire was probably caused by sparks that flew when the undercarriage scraped the pavement or by a hot lug nut, Knott said.

A Colorado State Patrol trooper spotted a person rolling the wheel back to the truck at around 2 p.m. There was no fire visible at that time, Knott said, citing the trooper's information.

Midvalley resident Andy Modell said he was heading upvalley close to 2 p.m. when he noticed a man beating flames with a rug. Modell believes he was among the first people to call 911 to report the fire.

He turned off of Highway 82 onto Two Rivers Road and said he was surprised by what he perceived to be a slow response by firefighters. He called 10 minutes after his initial call, he said, and the emergency dispatcher assured him firefighters were on the way.

Basalt Deputy Fire Chief Pete Bradshaw said the Fire Department received a call at 2:02 p.m. of a wildfire "about the size of a garage" near the intersection of Highway 82 and Original Road.

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Three paid personnel were at the firehouse in El Jebel and brought the brush truck and an ambulance, Bradshaw said. The deputy fire chief from Snowmass Village, who was in the vicinity at the time, joined them. Those firefighters were on the scene within 10 minutes of the report.

The brush truck is a highly maneuverable vehicle that provides numerous tools for firefighters, including limited water. They started fighting the fire from the highway, on the west end of the blaze. That effort wasn't visible from Modell's vantage point.

A fire engine staffed by volunteer firefighters mobilized and arrived on the scene at about 2:25 p.m., according to witnesses.

Prior to that engine arriving, Modell said he called 911 a third time and expressed his concern that there wasn't a quicker, more aggressive response as he watched the flames grow below the hillside where there are multiple homes in the Aspen Junction subdivision.

"I thought the homes were potentially in danger," he said. At the time he departed, the Basalt engine hadn't arrived.

The flames were doused soon after the engine arrived at 2:25 p.m. No structures were damaged. Bradshaw said the firefighting effort got two boosts. First, a gravel walking path parallel to the highway, higher on the slope, served as a firebreak. Second, the wind shifted after the fire started and blew the flames upvalley rather than uphill.

Modell said he has a "huge regard" for firefighters and law enforcement officials in the valley, but questions if the communities are giving them the resources to respond to incidents such as Friday's wildland fire.

"I think the questions have to be raised," he said. "My question is, why isn't there some kind of full-time response?"

Bradshaw noted paid staff members were first to arrive on the scene in the truck outfitted for wildland fires. The volunteers mobilized and responded with an engine as quickly as they could, he said.

"We'd love to be on every call in four minutes," he said. In reality, it often takes longer, he added.

Modell said he wants the communities up and down the Roaring Fork Valley to examine their priorities for funding and make sure emergency response is adequately funded.

"Money can be put wherever you want to put it," he said.

Bradshaw said 11 firefighters and three engines responded from Basalt. Additional personnel and equipment arrived from Carbondale and Snowmass Village.

scondon@aspentimes.com

MAKING THE MARK

The Insurance Standards Organization (ISO) recently gave Basalt Fire Department a better rating for its system for responding and fighting structural fires.

Basalt improved from 4 to 3 in the Public Protection Classification, with 1 being the highest possible, according to ISO. Two years ago, the standards organization determined that Basalt had improved from a rating of 5 to 4.

“The significant part for us is we were striving to stick to the current number, which is four,” said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.

He credited the improved rating to the paid and volunteer staff increasing their level of training, technical improvements to the Pitkin County Dispatch Center among contributing factors.

“Communities whose PPC improves may get lower insurance prices,” said the notification from Insurance Standards Organization. “PPC also provides fire departments with a valuable benchmark, and is used by many departments as a valuable tool when planning, budgeting and justifying fire protection improvements.”

The report shows that only 3,409 departments out of 46,042 in the country that sought the assessment received a rating of 3 or above. Basalt was among the top 25th percentile.

“That’s just a testament to the board, staff and volunteers. We’re doing the right thing,” Thompson said.

The better rating will probably have a “minimal” impact for residential property owners, Thompson said. It could have a significant bearing on the premiums paid by commercial property owners, he said.

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