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The Community Came Together After Lake Christine. Can It Unite To Prepare For The Next Fire, Too?

Jul 2, 2019

Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson, firefighter Karl Oliver and Basalt resident Mark Overstreet look at a dried Christmas tree, a fire safety no-no, on the porch of one residence at the Basberg townhomes during a recent fire risk assessment
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

One year ago, on June 3, 2018, the Lake Christine fire started at the Basalt shooting range. It eventually burned over 12,000 acres, forced thousands of residents to evacuate and destroyed three homes.  Fire officials say, now, it’s time for homeowners to take action before another fire.

Making it through the Lake Christine fire was a team effort in the Roaring Fork Valley.  People donated food and diapers, and offered evacuees a place to stay. Fire officials say that kind of community effort has to be put into preparing for the next fire, too.  

Basalt fire chief Scott Thompson and firefighter Karl Oliver are examining nearly every inch of the grounds outside of the Basberg townhomes in the hills above Basalt.

Oliver takes pictures and detailed notes on an iPad about how to fortify the property against another fire- things like removing dead trees and cleaning out spruce needles from gutters, where an ember could land and ignite. The Lake Christine fire is still on Oliver’s mind as he looks at the flammable cedar patio furniture on one deck. 

"During the Christine Fire, on the Fourth in the early morning, that’s what we did. We went to homes, and got onto decks and removed all their furniture that was flammable," he said.

It’s hard not to think about Lake Christine at the Basberg complex.  The fire’s scar, still black but spotted with new green vegetation, is just a few hundred feet away.  Mark Overstreet has lived here for decades

Mark Overstreet speaks with the fire risk assessment team on the Basberg Townhome grounds, the scar of Lake Christine visible on the hills behind him.
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

and had never seen a fire get this close. He tells the firefighters that after he and the other residents were evacuated, they gathered outside of Basalt High School to watch the flames get closer and closer to their homes.  

"In between the smoke, your lights were flashing, and we were just hoping...You know, everybody was cheering you guys on," he said.

Overstreet says after that close call, the residents returned home and saw the property with new eyes. Dead trees and dry grass weren’t just eyesores; they were wildfire fuel. The homeowners association called in Basalt Fire to assess risks on their property.   

Oliver says they got a lot of requests for fire assessments last fall, after Lake Christine. Then came a snowy, wet winter. 

"And we’re not getting not any calls," he said.

Chief Thompson says it’s critical that Roaring Fork Valley residents take proactive steps now, before the next disaster. 

"We’ve only got so many firefighters, and we’ve got thousands of homes that we need to protect, so those homes have to be able to survive," he said.

A few small steps can help a home survive.  Thompson points out juniper bushes planted by someone’s front door. 

"Those things are like putting a can of gasoline next to your house," he said.

Oliver spends a lot of time looking at the trees on the property, recommending taking out the lower limbs.

Chief Thompson takes a look at flammable cottonwood debris that's gathered under a deck.
Credit Christin Kay / Aspen Public Radio

This prevents them from becoming what’s called ladder fuel, a place for fire to climb, instead of staying on the ground, where it’s easier to fight. 

Oliver says the Basberg complex needs to remove some trees so that there’s more space between them. 

"You don’t have to remove everything, but you have to create firebreaks from one group of trees to another," he said.  

People are hesitant to remove trees, even in neighborhoods that were evacuated a year ago.  

"We hear from people, we don’t want to mitigate our property. I don’t want to see my neighbor.  I like my privacy.

Thompson says that he’s seen interest in mitigation fall off pretty quickly in the past year.  This spring, he attended a homeowners association meeting for a neighborhood of about eighty homes. 

"Four homeowners showed up out of the eighty," he said.  

 

That's not nearly enough to save the neighborhood. 

"Two or three will do mitigation on their property, and then forty won’t.  Well, those that don’t are going to burn their neighbors houses down," he said.

There’s lots of work to be done, both to prepare for the next fire and to get residents on board.