John Colson: Is jail the best answer to the Lake Christine Fire? |

John Colson: Is jail the best answer to the Lake Christine Fire?

John Colson
Hit & Run

What we seem to have here, to paraphrase the prison-camp warden in the movie “Cool Hand Luke,” is a failure to educate.

That’s all I can surmise after the recent and utterly idiotic behavior by two local 20-somethings that, as of Monday, had left some 6,000 acres of the middle portion of the Roaring Fork Valley burned and blighted and an ongoing wildfire that was roughly 30 percent contained, and had caused the loss of three families’ homes so far.

The fact that there were few serious injuries, and no greater loss of property, was due to the valor, ingenuity and determination of a firefighting force that ultimately grew to 500 or so, as well as the sustained support from Salvation Army volunteers and people in general who turned out to provide food and shelter for the fire crews and the 1,700 or so temporary refugees from the flames.

Fire experts say the conflagration may burn for weeks or months, meaning the air around here is going to be smoky and scary for that long, at least. And given the erratic nature of winds in our region, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the fire could blow up again and threaten lives and homes.

All of this was caused by a pair of young-adult dunderheads, identified as Richard Karl Miller, 23, and Allison Sarah Marcus, 22, both of El Jebel, who apparently decided it would be cool to shoot tracer rounds at the Lake Christine gun range near Basalt.

We don’t know yet whether this was bad judgment, ill-informed foolishness or some sort of malignant intent spawned by ignorance. But we do know that the use of tracer rounds is prohibited at all times at the Basalt Public shooting range, and specifically was disallowed by fire bans announced by local and federal authorities in the weeks leading up to the July 3 incident.

Tracer rounds, as many already know, are military-grade ammunition, typically for semi-auto rifles or machine guns. They are manufactured with a core of combustible material, such as magnesium, that burns brightly as the bullet travels from the gun barrel to the target.

I have seen reports indicating that tracer rounds generally are intended to show a shooter where his or her shots are landing over long distances, generally in military-type settings, and comments from experienced shooters condemning the use of them in outdoor, very dry conditions, particularly in the West.

Given all that, one has to wonder what was going on in the heads of these two when they went out to the range on July 3, in the middle of Stage II fire restrictions, and started popping off the explosive rounds that ended up igniting the brush behind the targets.

Were they drunk or otherwise impaired?

Was Miller trying to impress Marcus with his coolness, his nerve, his devil-may-care attitude, or was Marcus hoping to show Miller she was an “up for anything” type of gal able to keep up with the guys?

We don’t know, but perhaps we’ll learn more about this kind of thing when the two go before a judge.

To return my opening line of thought, this situation seems to be symptomatic of a prolonged effort by certain political factions in this country to undermine, even destroy our public education system. The method used by these factions, mainly and collectively known as the Republican Party, has been to attack the public’s confidence in, and support for, a public education system that until recently was the envy of the world in large part because it was open to all regardless of race, creed, socioeconomic status or color of skin.

In a righteous fog of outrage over this, the anti-education faction has thrown its weight behind charter schools, private schools, religious schools and just about any other kind of educational substitute they could find to supplant the tax-funded public schools, while at the same time cutting funds for the existing system.

The fact that nearly all these alternatives also rely on government support of some kind was somehow lost in the translation as attacks on our public schools gained volume and intensity starting in the latter part of the 20th century, and our public-school institutions started to crack under the pressure.

The resulting dumbing-down of our populace has led us to the point where some fool could approach an outdoors public shooting range, see the desiccated, highly flammable brush in every direction, and not conclude that it would be a bad idea to shoot tracer rounds toward that brush.

The two who were charged face the possibility of years in jail and an untold amount of fines and reparation payments.

But perhaps that’s not the right way of handling this. Maybe there’s an even more effective way of approaching it, without the cost of a trial and incarceration. This may be what they call “a teaching moment” (irony, anyone?)

Could the courts impose some kind of outreach, send these two into the schools to talk about what they did, the harm they caused, and instill some sort of understanding that actions have repercussions, especially stupid actions undertaken without thinking?

Or, if that isn’t workable, we could revive the use of some modern version of public stocks, and encourage the public to come and take a look at an example of what can come of acting without thinking.

I know, I know, we’ve all made mistakes in our lives. I’ve made some doozies myself.

But few of us have made mistakes with such dire consequences as the mistakes made in this instance.

And it could be that, if some punishment more creative than a jail term and big fines is imposed on these two, fewer of us will ever make this particular kind of mistake in the future.

Email at jbcolson51@gmail.