Where were you when?: Looking back one year later at the Lake Christine fire
The evening of July 3, 2018, was one of those “Where were you when?” moments that will stick with thousands of Roaring Fork Valley residents for their lifetimes.
Months after the flames of the Lake Christine Fire were snuffed, the memories remain seared in the consciousness of people who evacuated their homes, feared for their neighbors’ well-being and watching with high anxiety as the firefighting effort raged.
It was a legacy moment for the midvalley in the eyes of Basalt resident Cathy Click.
“It became a very real possibility that people on both sides of the hill and up the Frying Pan might lose their property,” she said recently. “Looking up on July 4 was scary.”
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Click and her husband, Bernard Moffroid, were among hundreds of homeowners in Basalt, El Jebel, Missouri Heights and points in between who were ordered to evacuate. They left their home in the Hill District of Basalt on July 4 after serving breakfast at Café Bernard in downtown Basalt, which they owned at the time.
Click said what stuck with her after conditions calmed down were people’s stories of how rattled they were in the thick of the chaos. A lot of people think in advance about what prized possessions to take when disaster strikes, but so few can carry through.
“Your mind goes blank,” Click said.
One friend admitted to taking a juicer, she said. Bernard took 12 pairs of jeans.
“Those types of stories stick with you,” Click said.
The fire remains on the minds of so many people because the burn scar remains so visible.
“I don’t know how you can’t think about it when you look up that hill,” Click said.
The Lake Christine Fire broke out at the shooting range at the Basalt State Wildlife Area shortly before 6 p.m. on July 3 when a couple fired tracer ammunition from a rifle. The fire quickly spread among the dry grasses and pinyon and juniper trees covering the hillside on lower Basalt Mountain.
Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson was worried that the valley’s usual prevailing winds from the west would push the fire toward the Wilds luxury housing complex and toward the Hill District of Basalt.
“Normally we anchor and flank the fire. We pinch it off,” Thompson said. “I knew there were wet hay fields right above it. I really thought we had a chance (to pinch the fire off) but the weather took it and blew it out to the west.”
In the unusual weather patterns of last summer’s drought, the evening wind came from the east rather than the west.
“I would never to this day still believe that a fire would burn downvalley in this valley,” Thompson said.
July 4 started with uncertainty and ended ominously for midvalley residents. It wasn’t immediately clear to lay people that the fire still posed a danger. It was out of sight in the state wildlife area, if not out of mind.
Thompson said seven air tankers made round after round to try to prevent the fire from overrunning Basalt that day. A ground crew created a fire line above the town. A second, contingency fire line was created to burn off as a last resort. The tankers had limited success keeping the fire in check.
“That’s why in the afternoon we ordered that DC-10,” Thompson said.
The mammoth aircraft dropped retardant that helped hold the fire line. Mother Nature assisted because for the second day, prevailing west winds weren’t an issue.
“A wind event at the right time in Basalt and we would have lost hundreds of homes,” Thompson said in mid-June while reflecting on the nearly 1-year-old events.
While Basalt was saved, some of the most dramatic firefighting was still to come. Downed and dangling power lines made it impossible for Thompson to send in firefighters to contain the fire.
Once dusk fell July 4 and air operations were ceased, the insatiable fire popped over the ridge high above Highway 82 and started snaking down the steep slope. Before long, the winds that had befriended firefighting efforts turned into the enemy. Thompson said 40 mph winds out of the east that weren’t forecast by the National Weather Service drove a firewall downvalley toward the El Jebel Mobile Home Park.
It’s miraculous that the fire didn’t dive over the ridge farther upvalley in one of numerous subdivisions embedded in thick, dry pinyon and juniper forests, Thompson said.
“It could have come down Aspen Mesa. It could have come down Hillcrest. It could have come down Original Road,” he said. “I have no idea why it came down into El Jebel like it did. It was all wind-driven. There was no weather forecast to tell us that was going to happen.”
If it had crossed the ridge farther upvalley, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the wind blowing ember showers across the highway, igniting dry ground in Willits and Sopris Village and threatening hundreds of homes and businesses, Thompson said.
The way it played out, though, it took a heroic effort by about 40 firefighters on the eastern edge of El Jebel and additional crews up in Missouri Heights to check the fire. Crews overseen by Greater Eagle Fire District Chief Doug Cupp used flares at just the right time to start a fire that stopped the momentum of the wildland fire roaring toward El Jebel.
Two homes in a gully adjacent to the trailer park couldn’t be saved.
Up in Missouri Heights, crews led by veteran Basalt firefighter Cleve Williams weren’t able to save Williams’ own house but prevented the fire from spreading.
Thompson said a vegetation reduction project on federal lands east of the trailer park that was undertaken several years ago helped the firefighting. In addition, irrigated lands on Ace Lane’s property helped slow the approaching fire.
Nevertheless, to countless witnesses watching from the parking lots of Whole Foods, City Market and Movieland in the early-morning hours of July 5, it was a vision of hell. Smoke clogged the air and was lit orange by the flames. Ash rained down. Sirens wailed and there was a constant popping from natural and manmade materials consumed by the flames.
Again, luck was on the midvalley’s side.
“We’re going to have fires, it’s just when,” Thompson said. “Last year was when. We dodged a bullet. We should have lost 100 homes.”
For many people, the Lake Christine Fire will be hard to forget for years. John Katzenberger gets a daily reminder.
“Every day when we come home we see the fire line,” he said.
Katzenberger and his wife, Debora Jones, have lived for 40 years in a rural subdivision on the southern slope of Basalt Mountain, at the top of Cedar Drive. Residents of the area were among those evacuated the longest during the fire because of an ongoing risk. It was a hectic week but the first days were the toughest.
“There was no word,” he said. “We didn’t know if our house was going to be gone.”
As the executive director of the Aspen Global Change Institute, Katzenberger is a man of science. While no expert on fire ecology, he is fascinated to watch how the mountainside is returning to life. Areas that “looked dead last fall” are showing signs of green — oak brush shoots growing from blackened, lifeless trunks of older plants and carpets of neon green grass sprinkled with hearty yellow flowers rising from ashen soil. But there are thousands of charred pinyon and juniper trees in lower elevations and singed conifer trees on higher slopes. The mountain will take years to recover.
Michelle Muething, executive director of the Hope Center, said wet conditions this winter and spring have helped many people shake off concerns of a repeat fire. Nevertheless, the high anxiety of July 3 through 5 still weighs on some people.
“There’s no getting over it. It’s stuck in people’s heads,” Muething said. “It’s part of people’s story now.”
The Hope Center helps people at a time of crisis, be it personal or on a broader scale such as the fire. The Fire Department referred several people to the Hope Center last summer after the fire broke out.
“People didn’t know how to cope,” Muething said.
One client was affected by the constant presence of helicopters flying over as part of the firefighting effort. A helicopter was flying over his house every 12 minutes, 14 seconds.
Other clients had ongoing fears they were going to get a late-night knock on the door telling them they had to evacuate the area.
Thompson hopes people put their memories of Lake Christine Fire to good use. He urges people to be prepared for emergencies that might force them out of their homes for extended times. People should have a “go kit” prepared with clothing, medications, important papers and prized possessions. They must also have a plan in case something like a fire prevents them from returning to their home when they are at work or out.
The Fire Department has seen an increase in the number of people calling for a free assessment of wildland fire potential on their property. Whether they are following up and hiring a contractor to perform the recommended work or blow it off is tough to say, Thompson said.
The biggest step people can take to be prepared is to sign up for alerts that are delivered via social media from the county governments, Thompson said.
He was frustrated that only about 50 people showed up at a recent meeting to discuss the threat of flooding and debris flows from the fire burn scar.
And while the wet conditions have eased fire concerns for now, the grasses and some other vegetation types will dry out by August without monsoons in July. The fire threat could return.
Thompson is resigned to the fact that he will be talking about the Lake Christine Fire for the rest of his life. It comes up constantly at community events or he’s asked to talk about it for special groups.
“It’s not going away,” Thompson said. “It’s part of my history, I guess. I pray a lot that it won’t happen again between now and retirement.”
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Wayne Hall took a job as an air traffic controller at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport in 2003 thinking he would stay for a short time. Instead he stayed for nearly 17 years and was promoted up to the position of air traffic manager. He reflected on the experience upon retirement.