It was sometime around 6:30 the night of July 3, 2018, and the Aspen Daily News newsroom was quiet.
I was browsing social media while waiting for the next day’s stories to come in, when a post on the Roaring Fork Swap Facebook group caught my eye. The post was a photo of smoke rising at the base of Basalt Mountain with a caption that read, “Fire near the Basalt gun range.” I immediately told ADN editor Curtis Wackerle, and he contacted the Basalt Fire Department to find out was going on.
At first, we were told that it was a small brush fire near the gun range and that fire crews were working on it. However, we quickly realized that something bigger was going on as more and more information and photos of what crew started to call the “Lake Christine Fire” kept flooding in.
The night of July 3 we kept reporting the flood of information that was coming in. Several areas of west Basalt were ordered to evacuate and even more were under pre-evacuation orders. By the time I went to bed, the fire had grown to approximately 50 acres and all we knew was that two individuals had allegedly started the fire by using tracer rounds.
By the morning of the fourth, the fire had grown to 342 acres and was 0 percent contained. One of our editors, Madeleine Osberger, began reporting first thing in the morning and was in contact with public information officers before many of us were even awake. By the time I was headed into Aspen to cover the Independence Day festivities we had two staff members in the field.
Reporter Andre Salvail was at the site of the fire, talking to folks who were displaced and watching the fire as it continued to grow, and photographer Craig Turpin was capturing hundreds of images of the fire, crews and fire fighting aircraft as they worked to try and quell the blaze.
The day of July 4 it was all hands on deck. As I ran between events in town and the office, Madeleine, Andre, Craig, Curtis and our other editor Chad were all doing their part to keep the whole valley informed on what was happening with the Lake Christine Fire.
Chad reported that the suspects in the fire were Allison Marcus, 22, and Richard Miller, 23, both of El Jebel. They were charged initially with misdemeanor fourth-degree arson. They had allegedly been shooting tracer rounds, which are incendiary, the night of July 3 at the Basalt Shooting Range. A sign at the range prohibited any sort of incendiary rounds.
By 5 p.m. more than 500 homes had been evacuated, the fire was posing a risk to power lines and it just kept growing despite the best efforts of crews from Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Basalt Fire District/Snowmass Wildcat Fire District (the combined Roaring Fork Fire District), Colorado River Fire Rescue, Glenwood Springs Fire Department, U.S. Forest Service, Aspen Fire Department, Upper Colorado River Fire Team, Rifle Helitak, Colorado State Patrol, Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Basalt Police Department, Salvation Army and the Red Cross.
I stared at an engulfed Basalt Mountain as I rode the bus home that night.
All of Missouri Heights was evacuated at 1 a.m. the morning of July 5.
By the next morning, the fire had grown to 2,700 acres. Three homes had been lost. It was only due to the efforts of firefighters that hundreds more were not lost. We were realizing by now that this fire is going to be in our lives for the foreseeable future and could rival Storm King from 1994.
The Roaring Fork High School became a shelter for evacuees. Garfield County opened a livestock and large animal shelter at the Rifle fairgrounds.
By 11:32 a.m. the estimated size of the fire had grown to 4,900 acres. It was still 0 percent contained.
People were questioning why the gun range had been open at all, considering the dry conditions. Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said that he had reached out to Colorado Parks and Wildlife about closing the range. On July 4, CPW issued a statement to what it called “an unfortunate incident” at an otherwise “very safe range.”
Evacuees began to play the waiting game of when they could go home.
We learned that one of the homes lost to the fire was that of Cleve Williams, a firefighter who watched as his home was consumed. He was able to save the home of his sister-in-law Kara Williams.
The Lake Christine Fire was 5,400 acres and three percent contained.
At a public meeting at Basalt High School, we learned that although the fire’s acreage was now 5,916, the fire was 30 percent contained. A collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the valley as we got our first piece of good news.
Many residents were allowed home, but some were still under mandatory evacuation. They were allowed 20 minutes to retrieve items from their homes.
The fire grew to 6,285 acres, but was 43 percent contained by the end of the day.
All mandatory evacuations were downgraded, but there was still a threat of fire and flood concerns as we started looking to the end of summer.
The fire was 6,602 acres and 54 percent contained.
6,693 acres, 55 percent containment.
The fire’s suspects turned themselves in.
6,822 acres, 59 percent.
The fire jumped to 8,315 acres and areas of Basalt were placed back on pre-evacuation. After weeks of steady containment, this brought spirits back down a bit.
The fire grew again to 11,459 acres and containment dropped to 32 percent. Although the Lake Christine Fire had been on the back of our minds for a little while, concerns were growing again. Luckily, the area that was burning did not threaten any homes.
After a week of no major updates, the fire had grown to 12,588 acres, but containment grew to 72 percent. All standing pre-evacuation orders were lifted and many homeowners in Basalt were able to relax a bit.
However, the threat of rains bringing flooding to the burn scar was getting closer and closer.
Containment jumped 10 percent overnight to 81 percent and crews began seeking storm spotters to help watch for weather that could affect the fire area.
Ninety-eight days after the Lake Christine Fire started, containment officially reached 100 percent. The final size of the fire came to nearly 12,600 acres.
August and September were spent discussing the gun range’s location and waiting for the final containment announcement to come in. Containment had been at over 90 percent since August and the cold temperatures, rain and snow of early October were enough to allow firefighters to get that final push.
July 1, 2019
The couple who started the fire were sentenced to 45 days of jail each, five years of probation, 1,500 hours of community service and must pay $100,000 in restitution.
July 4, 2019
One year later, and the Lake Christine Fire is still fresh in many of our minds. We were lucky that there were no deaths in the fire, but three homes were still lost and the landscape of Basalt Mountain will not be the same again.
One year later and we still want to express our gratitude to the firefighters and responders who worked so hard to protect homes and contain the fire.