‘That’s what hell’s like’
August 1, 2002
Once the smoke of the Missouri Heights fire lifted last evening, it became clear just how lucky it was that no more than four homes were lost to the blaze.
The flames torched all the thick scrub oak and grass right up to the edge of multi-million-dollar homes on the west edge of Spring Park Reservoir as well as the older houses across Upper Cattle Creek Road.
Three homes were lost in that immediate neighborhood, according to Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson. Another house burned elsewhere within the 1,700-acre blaze, authorities said.
The fire started in the Panorama Estates subdivision at a home construction site where rebar was being cut for a foundation, according to Colorado State Patrol Trooper C.L. Abernathy. It was believed that sparks from the work ignited surrounding vegetation.
The fire started at a home being built for Hans Brucker. Ironically his brother, Andy, is an air tanker pilot who has fought fires for 20 years. It was unknown if Andy Brucker was assigned to this fire.
The fire had consumed about 25 acres after one hour, but had exploded to an estimated 1,700 acres by 8 p.m.
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“If there’s a hell, that’s what it’s like,” said Nita Davis shortly after driving through the hardest hit area by Spring Park Reservoir Wednesday afternoon.
Davis, her husband, and their three daughters were staying in a cabin surrounded by the national forest lands of Basalt Mountain’s west flank. Two of their daughters were driving into town when they saw the flames. They returned to alert their parents, then the whole group drove down Basalt Mountain Road to check it out.
“They just came flying in saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of here,'” said Pete Davis.
Once Nita and Pete saw the fire for themselves, they decided to hightail it back to the cabin, grab their belongings and run for their lives. “My first thought was ‘Are we going to get out of here?'” said Mr. Davis.
When they got to the intersection of Basalt Mountain Road and Upper Cattle Creek Road, a firefighter told them to turn on their lights and speed out the left fork toward El Jebel.
“There was fire on both sides of the road and smoke everywhere,” said Ashley Davis. Pictures taken by her sister, JoAnn, as they were speeding out show long lines of burning oak brush churning up thick black smoke, ghostly images of charred tree and bush trunks and air tankers dropping their red retardant on hillsides sprinkled with homes.
They saw flames engulf some structures and threaten others. “We saw one go up like someone struck a match,” said Mr. Davis.
The Davises were some of the last people evacuated from the threatened area. An estimated 300 people were told to leave their homes or weren’t allowed back to their homes. A Red Cross shelter was set up in Basalt High School.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson said his department and assisting agencies attempted to contain the east end of the fire in the Spring Park Meadows subdivision, a new, rural subdivision being developed about four miles from El Jebel.
Although winds stayed relatively calm for most of the afternoon, they kicked up enough from the west at around 2:30 p.m. to send the 90-foot flames hurtling toward more densely populated areas.
Firefighters were literally on doorsteps and porches of homes trying to save them, said Thompson.
“We’re not going to stop the head of the fire,” Thompson told his firefighters via radio at 3:15 p.m. “We’re just trying to save some structures.”
Residents of subdivisions just beyond harm’s way looked on nervously as huge white and black smoke plumes rose into the sky and the flames became visible at the top of a ridge.
Greg Hoffman, a homeowner for 10 years on Sam Grange Court, pulled all flammable materials away from his house after he was alerted about the ominous signs of the fire a short distance away. His neighborhood on Sam Grange Court was next in line if the fire swung to the south.
Hoffman was using a garden hose to wet down the sagebrush in his yard while his girlfriend was packing their valuables in the house. He said he hoped the wind would continue to push the fire against Spring Park Reservoir and prevent it from spreading his direction.
The wind continued from the west before it died completely. It was nothing like the howling gusts that struck that Saturday in June when the Coal Seam fire lashed West Glenwood Springs.
The lack of wind allowed air tankers to make repeated runs at the fire starting at about 3 p.m. and continuing past 6 p.m.
“Fate was on our side today,” said Basalt Police Sgt. Chris Maniscalchi. He helped evacuate residents and prevent people from heading into the threatened areas.
Maniscalchi and other cops noted that the Panorama and Spring Park Meadow subdivisions had few residents but lots of construction workers to evacuate. They left with no objections. Most residents also left with little objection, Maniscalchi said.
Several residents rushed in to grab personal belongings before 2 p.m. After that, they were turned away by police.
The neighborhoods most at risk were evacuated by cops.
“People were hooking up horse trailers. They were taking care of their livestock and their pets. It was a frantic thing,” said witness Steve Tenold. He was returning home to Carbondale after cutting hay near Basalt when he spotted the smoke and decided to check it out.
Tenold ended up with a great vantage point from Basalt Mountain Road. He said a wall of smoke about 600 yards wide rolled down the hillside and sent up thick smoke. The smoke was so thick that he couldn’t tell if structures were on fire, but he couldn’t imagine they all escaped.
Like the Davises, he finally fled the area via Upper Cattle Creek Road with flames on both sides.
Fire chief Thompson said a doublewide mobile home and a log home burned on the west side of Upper Cattle Creek Road. A newer home in the large-lot subdivision adjacent to Spring Park Reservoir was damaged.
“The two that burned, we just couldn’t do anything about,” Thompson said.
The fire departments were assisted not only by the air tankers and a helicopter dropping water, but also by a fleet of heavy machinery thrown into action by construction companies.
Noel Crawford was one of the first people on the scene. He was working with a bulldozer.
Aspen Earthmoving and Condon Construction were among the construction companies that hauled in machinery to help.
Crews were building fire lines and setting backfires last night to snuff out fuel sources. “It’s laying down,” said Thompson.
While they had prevented it from spreading to problem areas like Basalt Mountain, where the U.S. Forest Service has identified a high wildfire threat, it was far from contained, Thompson said.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]