WindWalkers finding a new normal after Lake Christine Fire
September 27, 2018
It was hard to miss the towering column of smoke that filled the Roaring Fork Valley skyline when the Lake Christine Fire erupted the first week in July.
The catastrophic blaze burned devastatingly close to the towns of Basalt, El Jebel and the neighboring community of Missouri Heights, where numerous horse ranches are located.
The fire took a toll on many, impacting families, their livelihoods and even some businesses.
Located in the heart of Missouri Heights near the base of Basalt Mountain, WindWalkers Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy center employs a staff of four to eight depending on the time of year, plus 11 independent contractors and more than 70 volunteers. They care for 13 to 18 horses, a tribe of goats and a handful of smaller farm animals on the 18 acres of land northeast of Carbondale.
During a typical summer week, WindWalkers can serve as many as 110 clients at its usually busy facility.
Things all changed on our nation's birthday, when the Lake Christine Fire, which ignited July 3, broke containment late July 4. Fed by strong winds and dry conditions, the fire erupted, spreading toward Missouri Height from Basalt.
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"The evacuation came on July 4, welcome to independence," Executive Director Gabrielle Greeves said. "We saw a different kind of fireworks that day."
Thanks to a good evacuation plan, Greeves and her staff were able to evacuate the facility within two hours.
"It was heartbreaking as the flames began coming across Basalt Mountain," Greeves said about her thoughts during the evacuation.
For seven long days, Greeves, the staff and the animals were spread across the valley, taking refuge from the inferno raging on the mountain.
"I remember driving back and thinking, 'Are we crazy to return?'" Greeves said. "The poor air quality and the thickness of the smoke was oppressive, my eyes were burning, and we were practically choking on it."
Greeves kept a close watch on the fire and the changing weather, attending the command post briefings and waiting with bags packed with every update to see if another evacuation was in order.
"It wasn't just us. I think of all the business affected. I think of that one night where the mountain went up in a glow and it was raging," Greeves said. "We looked like we weren't just going to lose a town, it was like we were going to lose several towns."
The fire danger to WindWalkers may have passed, but the ordeal was far from over for the staff and the animals.
Heavy smoke socked in the valley, leaving the visibility and air quality at dismal levels.
HEIGHT OF THE SEASON
"Everybody's life, whether you were affected or not, went a little topsy-turvy," said Beth Gusick, program coordinator and head riding instructor for WindWalkers. "Summers are always a busy time for WindWalkers. This summer with all the smoke we had concerns about how the horses were doing."
The center found itself constantly battling poor air quality and the patterns of the planes and helicopters fighting the fire were a constant, flying over the buildings making it difficult for some clients and volunteers battling with PTSD to attend therapy.
"We couldn't teach certain populations because of restrictions, certain clients were dealing with anxiety," Greeves said. "It impacted this community more than people recognized."
The effects of the fire and the smoke's devastation continued up until the first two weeks of August.
With the already existing drought conditions, prices of hay had skyrocketed, and missing over a month of therapy sessions hit WindWalkers harder than anticipated.
"It was harmful financially as well as physically exhausting, taking care of horses in that heat, for the health of the horse, staff and volunteers," Greeves said. "It was the first time in my history with a nonprofit that we had to start writing checks back to families for what we couldn't offer in services."
BACK TO NORMAL
As the seasons change, the charred black scars of the fire can been seen etched across the face of Basalt Mountain.
With the daily reminder just a glance away, things are beginning to normalize for Greeves and WindWalkers.
The fall/winter unit has begun, with 55 to 70 individuals making weekly visits to Missouri Heights for therapy sessions.
Lisa McGlade of New Castle and her 3-year-old daughter, Grace, recently started equine therapy at the facility.
Grace, who has many ailments caused from injury during labor, including not being able to walk, suffers seizures regularly.
"The reach the center has is amazing," McGlade said, flashing a smile to her daughter as she trotted by on a horse with help from the staff and volunteers.
"It was a challenging summer. You don't realize how the heat and the fire can affect you," Gusick said, "Everyone felt a little off-kilter. It changed things for people."
"I have been in survivor mode and making the right decisions for the staff — and by staff I also mean these horses. They are the biggest part of my staff in some ways, because they show up every day, too," Greeves said. "You get up and go; you make the best of things."