Two years after Lake Christine Fire, family reflects on decisive action to save their home
When the Lake Christine Fire swept across Basalt Mountain on the night of July 4, 2018, the Kim family refused to leave it to fate that their Dragonfly Ranch in Missouri Heights would survive unscathed.
Alex, Laura and their son Tai wrestled with hoses of their irrigation system throughout the night to keep their 40-acre meadow and surrounding property doused enough to prevent the spread of the fire to the adjacent subdivision. Their greenbelt also allowed firefighters to concentrate efforts on a different battlefront.
Looking back on the second anniversary of the wildfire this week, the Kims recounted how the wind-driven flames rolled toward their property and crested a small berm just a few yards from their house before they extinguished them.
“The fire was literally rolling,” Laura Kim said Monday. She remembered shaking and thinking, “I hope we made the right decision because it’s too late to evacuate now.”
Laura and Alex had a busy evening ahead with their catering business Fusion when they departed to prepare for a party in Aspen on Fourth of July afternoon two years ago. They weren’t overly concerned about the wildfire that had broken out the night before at the Basalt shooting range several miles away, so they left Tai, then entering his senior year at Basalt High School, to hold down the fort.
“I jokingly said to Tai, ‘If the fire comes over the ridge, call me, ha-ha,’” Alex recalled.
Sometime around 9 p.m., the fire exploded and made an unexpected run generally downslope and toward Missouri Heights. Mandatory evacuation was ordered for the part of Missouri Heights that includes their property on Valley Hi Drive. Tai called his dad and they agreed he would roll out hoses while Alex raced home. A critical step was setting in motion a call on their remaining water from Spring Park Reservoir and getting their upslope neighbor to turn on her irrigation system so the water would make it to their property. The reservoir is a couple of miles from their house so it took time to arrive.
Tai’s adrenaline spiked when the fire poked over a nearby ridge. He had an evacuation bag ready, just in case.
Alex arrived in record time, going against the mass exodus of traffic fleeing Missouri Heights and El Jebel. A Colorado State Patrol trooper told him to grab important personal belongings and abandon the ranch. Alex said he told the trooper he intended to defend it. The trooper gave him the grim advice to notify his next of kin.
At first, all Alex and Tai could do was stage their irrigation apparatus and, in the ultimate test of patience, wait for their water to arrive. They recalled watching trees 30 feet away from the fire burst into flames from the intense heat. Tai recalled flames climbing halfway up large wooden poles for electrical lines on a nearby ridge. Strong, gusty winds sent showers of embers their way. The air was thick with smoke.
“That night was just a roar,” Alex said.
The water finally arrived and allowed them to use a central pivot system to water down the meadow and aim the water guns where needed on the periphery.
Alex recalled talking to Basalt firefighter Cleve Williams early in the morning of July 5, just as the flames swept toward Williams’ family home just a short distance away. At about 1:30 a.m., the line of flames that consumed Williams’ home marched toward the Dragonfly Ranch.
Family photos show their house in silhouette against a background of red glow from the fire. They raced around, aiming the irrigation guns at hotspots on their property and the adjacent McLean property, where beehives burst into flames as intense as magnesium burning.
While the Kims’ house is made of concrete and metal and has cleared defensible space all around, the fire got uncomfortably close on one occasion when it came over a berm to the north. A few hundred yards away, across Upper Cattle Creek Road, scores of homes are mixed in with the pinyon and juniper brush.
“It could have been so different,” Alex said. “If it would have come across Upper Cattle Creek (Road), it would have been like California.”
That was a reference to the deadly fire that wiped out the town of Paradise.
The Kims stayed up all night watching the fire and battling hotspots. Their house was filled with smoke and soot but it didn’t burn and didn’t advance.
“It was like a miracle, honestly,” Laura said.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson said the Kims’ irrigated meadow “made a huge difference” in the firefighting effort. The wet grass captured the embers and snuffed them out.
“We didn’t have to put anybody on there,” said Thompson, adding that fire crews were able to concentrate farther upslope in Missouri Heights.
The Kims said wildland firefighters they befriended in coming days told them their meadow and irrigation efforts likely saved the homes across the road. Laura has cards from neighbors that recognized the effort. She said they definitely made the right decision to defend their property.
“It was really important for us to stay here and do whatever we could,” she said.
The Kims’ efforts didn’t end that frightful night. They donated use of their land for a mobile plant where fire retardant was mixed and stored for 10 days starting July 23. Helitankers and Chinooks swooped down every 15 minutes and hauled off a load to dump on Basalt Mountain as the fire raged on.
The fire burned more than 12,500 acres of public and private land, destroyed three homes, forced the evacuation of hundreds more and put midvalley residents on edge.
Last year, the Kims were too busy catering to really think about the anniversary of the fire. This year, Laura noted there is similar stress due to the COVID-19 crisis and dry conditions reminiscent of July 2018.
Memories of the not-so-distant fire are once again hot on people’s minds.
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Elected officials rejected NIMBYISM in Aspen and remanded the 1020 E. Cooper Ave. affordable-housing project back to the Historic Preservation Commission at a meeting Monday.