Tony Vagneur: Lake Christine Fire brings out community spirit in midvalley |

Tony Vagneur: Lake Christine Fire brings out community spirit in midvalley

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

You might say the dust has settled, but the smoke sure hasn’t. The Lake Christine Fire isn’t over, not by a long shot, but it seems to be winding down, although the unpredictability it has demonstrated might make a fool or a liar out of the first one to say it’s over.

Around 1955, my grandfather took me on my first cattle-moving expedition up the Collins Creek drainage above Woody Creek and as we approached the head of the stream, I noticed a plethora of burned, blackened stumps covering the hillside. What caused that, Grandpa?

Without being very specific, he said there was a forest fire around the turn of the 19th century, a huge fire that burned for at least a couple of years. Winter slowed it down and made for a lot of smoke but didn’t kill the damned thing as expected. One can still find some charred stumps up there if you keep your eyes open. The Lake Christine Fire might be a bastard child of that long-ago conflagration.

The Fourth of July started off harshly at my Missouri Heights house. My dog Topper, who had been battling heart disease, collapsed and died before we got out the door. We buried him in a great, shaded site, underneath a towering Woody Creek cottonwood. Fare thee well, my good boy.

Later, my partner Margaret and I went to a Fourth of July celebration, and being reassured by those in the know that Missouri Heights did not appear to be in any danger, I fumbled through the evening, trying to not focus on thoughts of earlier in the day.

About 9:30 p.m., I headed downvalley and as I passed Basalt, was totally amazed at the enormity of the hellfire that covered the front of Basalt Mountain. Nearing the El Jebel turn-off to Missouri Heights, it looked as though the fire was contained to the east of the ridge above El Jebel and would probably climb toward the top of the mountain, leaving some peace in the valley.

As I traveled the dirt road to my house, several neighbors could be spied with their garage doors open, hooking up snowmobile trailers, horse trailers and scurrying around. In my estimation, they were a bit premature.

There was no smoke around my house, which is to the west of Upper Cattle Creek Road and although I could see the red, glowing sky off to the east, it still looked as though my area, and El Jebel, would be safe from the raging inferno.

My office is my refuge and as I fired up my computer, browsing through photos of my dog, Margaret called, insisting I sign up on the Pitkin County 911 alert system and even though I thought it to be totally unnecessary, I promised her I would.

Wow, certainly glad I did, although it seemed awfully quiet at the time. Just as I was getting ready to shut the house down for bed, my good friend, Buck Deane, called from Catherine Store, wondering if I was getting off the Heights. “Nah,” I said, “it feels pretty safe up here.”

“Natasha and I just watched the fire change direction and come down the ridge above El Jebel to the west in about 10 minutes and it’s heading your way,” Buck said.

Buck and Natasha came up to help me evacuate, and what do you take in such an instance? Valuable papers, no, they’re mostly replaceable. Photos, yes, my computer and a few antiques. Natasha and my daughter collaborated on the phone about what other valuable items needed to go, and as we worked, my son-in-law, Ty Burtard, showed up with his horse trailer. He already had a goat and a pony in there from a friend’s house, and we threw a bunch of my stuff in the back.

I still wasn’t convinced evacuation was necessary, but Pitkin County emergency manager Valerie MacDonald called around 11 p.m., asking me to do myself a favor and get off the Heights. Fire managers couldn’t remember seeing such an unpredictable fire before, she said. OK.

Willie Fender and his wife, Francesca, came up to lend a hand and soon we were ready for take-off. With a trailer load of about 150 bales of hay, I led the parade down CR 100 toward Catherine Store. Following me was Natasha, then Buck, driving my Jeep, Ty and his horse trailer, and all followed by Francesca in their car and Willie pulling my horse trailer with my old, beat-up Dodge that hadn’t been started since last fall. It was a grand parade around 1 a.m.

As we hit the highway, the mandatory evacuation order beeped on my phone and I became a believer. Thank you to friends, family and everyone else for the tremendous energy expended to help each other out.

As I write this, parts of the Fryingpan are under pre-evacuation orders and the damned beat goes on.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at