Aspen Princess: As Lake Christine Fire winds down, crews are leaving but will remain in our hearts
My friend Kiki sent me a video clip that’s been going around social media of a crew of firefighters dancing in the middle of the wilderness somewhere during the Lake Christine Fire.
It’s a bizarre scene, really, this crew of men in their green uniforms, unshaven, haggard and a little bleary-eyed, dancing to techno music not looking celebratory so much as a little stunned, as if they just landed here from some other planet or popped up from beneath the surface and are shaking the water off. In fact, shaking it off is exactly what I assume they were doing, working insane hours fighting this fire day in and day out for the better part of three weeks.
Most of these guys have packed up and headed off for another fire, most likely in California where the Carr Fire makes our fire look like child’s play. I would imagine these guys will miss our little valley when they head off for Redmond where more than 115,000 acres has burned, 1,000 structures have been lost, eight people have been killed and daytime temperatures are close to 100 degrees with almost no humidity. I wonder if they’ll miss their campsites here, pitching their tents on the lush green grasses of Crown Mountain Park and behind Basalt High School where a military grade encampment is still set up, but gradually winding down.
A friend of mine who lives in California had called me and said, “I know it probably seems huge when it’s in your own backyard, but the Lake Christine Fire is nothing compared to what’s going on out here.”
“What are you talking about?” I said, my voice growing defensive. “This thing burned for three weeks. It nearly destroyed downtown Basalt.”
Was I really having a “my fire is bigger than your fire” argument?
The thing is, I think this wildfire was kind of like giving birth in the sense that you feel like it’s only happening to you, like you are the first and only person to have experienced what it feels like to have danger lurking out your front door. When I was in labor for 22 hours and suffering from the kind of pain I never imagined I’d experienced in the modern world, I remember feeling infuriated by the doctor’s nonchalance. She almost seemed to be mocking me, rolling her eyes and laughing under her breath at my cries for help, my insistence that the pain was unbearable, my hysterics at not being able to manage it.
After Levi was born, I complained about that doctor to anyone who would listen and was met by a wall of fierce denial. It seemed everyone else loved my doctor. Apparently, it was me who was the problem.
The thing is, every woman who is in labor is likely the same way. They all think they are the first and only woman in the history of the world to give birth and they want to be treated as such. They are all probably angry when they are in pain, and willing to project that anger onto anyone who is standing within a 10-foot radius.
When I see news stories about this fire in California, I see my friend’s point. We are so lucky that no one was killed in our little baby fire that felt anything but little from our point of view. It felt never ending, it felt all important, and it felt very, very threatening. Even in the time I spent in Aspen, it felt like it was only happening to us, the people who live here in the midvalley. My Aspen friends were oblivious, somewhat removed and witnessing it from afar. One friend of mine even mentioned he was invited to come down to Missouri Heights to “watch the fire” as if it were an afternoon matinee.
It appears as though this fire, this Main Event that has dominated our lives for the past month, is almost over. The temporary station down the street from us on Frying Pan Road has been removed. I rode by Basalt High School on Monday and saw crews drying out their hoses in the grass and then rolling them up and packing them away. There are just a handful of tents left, looking more like a campsite than a strange tent city. The helicopters (or “hop-a-copters” as Levi calls them) still swarm around El Jebel, their chopper blades thrumming loudly, that soundtrack for the state of emergency that has dominated our lives for the past three weeks. But there also is an air of calm that we’d almost entirely forgotten. The sky has returned to its original shade of deep blue, the air has cleared, and the temperature has dropped enough to remind us we actually do live the Rocky Mountains and not the middle of Nevada.
Life finally feels back to normal but what I am left with is thinking about these firefighters, who have, according to the Lake Christine Facebook page update, been reassigned to other fires. For them, the fire isn’t over, but only just begun.
Who are these people who choose to do this kind of work? What is it like, to don that heavy gear and face the intense heat and do that hard, physical labor for hours on end? To sleep in tents and head out into the field for long shifts, fighting an animal that is totally unpredictable, all powerful and incredibly dangerous? What kind of skill is required to fly large aircraft, low to the ground in mountainous terrain with total precision? Who drives the bulldozer up the steep shale and over the cliff bands of Basalt Mountain?
They saved us. They saved our town, our homes, our valley and our lives. And now they’re off to do the same thing all over again somewhere else.
This fire might be over, but those brave souls will never be forgotten.
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