Basalt slowly rises out of the ashes
It was my first hot dog in a decade at the Basalt community celebration last week, an ominous one-year anniversary of the July 3, 2018, Lake Christine Fire. Raising my eyes above town, I took in the scars on the charred hillsides overlooking Basalt.
Those hillsides are returning to life, but it will be generations before mature trees come back. And it will be, for many, lifetimes of recalling the horrors of flame-red skies and plumes of roiling smoke that obscured the heavens.
Some might have liked to see the perpetrators of the fire pilloried at the community event — a basket of rotten tomatoes to hurl, four for a dollar. The sentences of 45 days in jail, $100,000 each in fines, 1,500 hours of community service and five years of probation can never pay for the damage done.
One of the fire victims was Tom Dunlop, who was injured when the bulldozer he was operating to cut a firebreak rolled down the mountain. He told me the jail sentences should be delayed so the required community service can be paid now, when water bars, tree planting and other restoration work is needed on the burn.
“Send them to jail later,” he suggested, “but get them on that burn now when they can do some good.”
Communities pay for malfeasance done to individuals and landscapes, whether a mass shooting, a destructive act of nature like a hurricane, earthquake or volcano, or a wildfire that breaks out at an ill-managed shooting range. No punishment can mend the wounds to the collective psyche, wounds that heal slowly.
As Scott Condon reported last week in The Aspen Times, everyone who witnessed the fire knows where they were when it broke out: “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,” Condon observed.
For my wife and son and me, the fire became real July 4, while hiking a wilderness trail in the Upper Fryingpan Valley. A strange wisp of cloud grew to the west — white with traces of brown. The cloud billowed huge and black as we drove anxiously toward our home at Seven Castles, 5 miles from Basalt.
From our backyard that night, we saw flames on a Basalt Mountain ridge. Two days later, we were put on pre-evacuation, which lasted two weeks. One day, we had burnt pine needles raining down on our home. Our salvation was in the winds that diverted the inferno from us in the Frying Pan and pushed the fire onto El Jebel. All of our lives were held in that wind.
Incendiary ammunition — tracers — set off the conflagration, which defied common sense and defined ignorance. Technically legal in Colorado, which has no restrictions on ammunition, tracers are banned in California, mostly for fire protection.
Colorado would do well to follow that lead. Whatever kneejerk justification might be contrived to defend it, a ban on tracers would be in the interest of the greater public good.
Speaking of guns and ammo, it’s become a challenge to find an undeveloped car camping site in Colorado where someone isn’t firing off weapons with Second Amendment clemency. Gunfire has become a Colorado constant, the result of a childlike infatuation for firepower.
On a hike last week with a group of Huts for Vets participants, a man was camped on the trail, armed with a high-powered hunting rifle he was firing into the woods. It was the perfect trigger for a group of combat veterans, many of whom equate firearms with service-borne trauma.
For now, the damage is done and the sentence given. The punishment will hurt the perps and offer a measure of retribution to those they recklessly hurt. The community celebration last week was a bit anemic, but it was a start toward a long process of healing.
“We’re going to have fires, it’s just when,” said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Chief Scott Thompson. “Last year was when. We dodged a bullet.”
Unfortunately, not the tracer bullet that blackened the hillsides of Basalt and darkened many lives.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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