Sojourner Salutes: The Lake Christine Firefighters

Their no-holds-barred heroism saved Basalt and El Jebel.

By Scott Condon Photography by Ross Kribbs November 20, 2018 Published in the Holiday 2018 issue of Aspen Sojourner

On July 10, some 750 people crowded the streets in El Jebel’s Crown Mountain Park as scores of soot-covered federal firefighters returned to their makeshift tent village from the front lines of the Lake Christine Fire.

The midvalley residents cheered, held signs, and high-fived the firefighters, all to thank them for battling the huge wildfire that had broken out the evening of July 3.

Laura Riegel, who organized the grassroots event, explains that a couple of nights earlier, she and a friend had dined out nearby, then went to wave to the firefighters driving back from Missouri Heights at the end of a long, hot day. “I thought, if two of us could do this, why not get 30 or 40 people?” she says. “Let’s make a big deal out of what these people have done.”

She posted a message on Facebook urging people to show up the following evening at Crown Mountain. The proposal went viral. People were eager to give thanks.

“It was organic. It was just meant to be,” Riegel says.

The firefighters were blown away. Many laughed and shook hands with the well-wishers. Some cried. “These guys just don’t see this stuff,” said Keith Brink, head of operations for the federal firefighting team, at the time.

He also noted that the local firefighters were the real heroes for saving the unincorporated community of El Jebel and the town of Basalt in the opening 36 hours of the blaze. After the fire broke out at the Basalt shooting range, it threatened to sweep through The Wilds residential complex and into the town’s Hill District. Firefighters from Basalt, Snowmass Village, Aspen, and Carbondale scrambled to control the flames with help from federal tankers dropping fire retardant and with helicopters making water drops. Eventually, winds helped push the conflagration away from Basalt.

The fire then exploded in the opposite direction on the night of July 4 and nearly overtook the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. Two houses near the park’s east edge, and one in Missouri Heights, were destroyed, but firefighters held their ground.

“We’re more than fortunate. We should have lost 100 homes,” says Basalt–Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson. Fifty-five firefighters from his joint department had stayed up for two straight days to fight the blaze. In addition to the local crews, the first wave of firefighters came from Glenwood Springs, western Garfield County, the Eagle Valley, and Summit County.

A mixed team of firefighters took a calculated risk to defend the mobile home park the night of July 4, using flares to set backfires and rob the encroaching wildland fire of fuel. The timing was perfect.

Says Thompson, “It was dangerous, but with their knowledge and abilities, they knew what the risks were, and they knew that they could be successful.”

About 20 Aspen volunteer firefighters helped with structure protection during the fire’s first phase. “I think no one was more surprised than us that we were able to stop the fire where we did and not lose more homes,” says Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine, while noting that firefighters were upset that any homes were lost. “You train for the worst and hope for the best. In this particular case, I’m very proud of our firefighters and everybody we worked with.”

Carbondale sent 22 firefighters to assist its neighbor, according to its fire chief, Rob Goodwin. He says the coordination among departments was key, as Thompson worked with the other chiefs to get the right personnel in the right places at the right times.

“None of the good things that happened happened by accident,” says Goodwin. “I do really think it was a ‘finest hour’ moment.”

By the Numbers: Lake Christine Fire

-12,588 Acres burned
-500 houses evacuated
-3 houses destroyed
-155 (estimated) Local firefighters who responded
-550 Federal firefighters who responded

Pictured at top: 
Some of the firefighters from Aspen, Snowmass Village, Basalt, and Carbondale who responded to the Lake Christine Fire. Back row (from left): Michael Brands, Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine; middle row: Cleve Williams, Jake Spaulding, Josh Greene, Wes Blasberg, Adam Cohen; front row: Adrian Aguilar, Cody Scoles, Mo McPhee, Kyle Ryan

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