Basalt fire chief Scott Thompson, part of a 10-person panel assembled May 6 at Basalt High School, spoke to an audience of more than 50 people about steps the town has taken in the last 10 months to address the past and future impacts of the Lake Christine Fire.
Thompson noted efforts the town and other entities have made to manage flooding and debris flow on Basalt Mountain, and he stressed the need for preparedness on the part of both his crew and homeowners for the next time an emergency happens. Near the end of his talk, Thompson mentioned that his department has already responded to three wildfire calls this year.
“I can tell that people are still nervous,” he said. “We haven’t forgotten last summer.”
What happened last summer, of course, was that two people shooting incendiary tracer bullets at the Basalt Public Shooting Range near Lake Christine ignited a wildfire that burned 12,588 acres on the forested slopes of Basalt Mountain, destroyed three homes and very nearly overran the El Jebel Mobile Home Park. In addition to those immediate impacts, the fire also greatly increased the risk of flooding throughout the burned area and downstream this spring. So, if people seem nervous, there’s a good reason for it.
That understandable anxiety was a big part of why the Basalt-based Roaring Fork Conservancy decided to host the panel discussion in the first place. Local residents, especially those near the affected zones, have been eager to learn about the flood risk and what is being done about it, and most anyone who has looked up at the charred slopes above Basalt has likely been curious about revegetation efforts.
Complicated fire, large team
The public got their answers Monday night from a slate of acronymic speakers representing the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Town of Basalt and Eagle County. The size of the team working on the burned area reflects the complicated nature of the fire itself, which burned land lying in the town, the county, the CPW’s Basalt State Wildlife Area (SWA), the White River National Forest (WRNF) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acreage.
The event, moderated by Roaring Fork Conservancy (RFC) Executive Director Rick Lofaro, began with a moment of silence for Tyler Ribich, the Basalt High School student killed in a car accident just three nights earlier.
After Lofaro’s opening comments, first up were USFS civil engineer Steve Hunter and WRNF ecologist Liz Roberts, who talked about how the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) began even before the fire was contained and continued up until the ground froze. This spring, the USFS has been doing additional revegetation, and thanks to winter’s abundant snowfall, “there already is a lot of natural recovery happening,” according to Roberts.
Next to speak was NFIP Bureau & Statistical Agent Erin May, who stressed the importance of flood insurance and noted that, due to the destruction of soil-anchoring vegetation by the fire, the flood risk in the area will be higher for the next decade.
May was followed by Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney, who discussed the town’s involvement in mitigation and revegetation efforts and the costs involved. Fortunately, the NRCS is covering 75 percent of the bill, with the state picking up another 12.5 percent. Regarding flood risk, he assured the audience, “if you weren’t contacted, you’re in no imminent danger.”
The next two speakers, NRCS District Conservationist Stephen Jaouen and CPW District Wildlife Manager Matt Yamashita, spoke about efforts to combat noxious weeds and revegetate the area with native grasses and brush, including 625 acres that have been reseeded by airplane.
Thompson, who oversees the combined district Roaring Fork Fire, followed, and then two law-enforcement officials, Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek and Basalt Police Chief Greg Knott, reiterated the overarching importance of signing up for alert notifications from Eagle, Pitkin or Garfield counties, calling it the most important step people can take to keep themselves safe.
Last to speak was Eagle County Emergency Manager Birch Barron, who talked about the county’s emergency preparedness while exhorting the audience to take all the safety measures they can personally.
“What we can do has limits,” he said. Barron called the risk of flood debris in and below the burn scar “eye-opening” and said that anyone who thinks they might be at risk should go to the USGS post-fire debris-flow hazards page and click on the Lake Christine Fire icon on the map. There, they’ll find a color-coded map showing the specific risks for each area of the burn zone.
Barron wrapped up his talk by calling on everyone listening to think about their own emergency plans. “If you were cut off from help, do you have the equipment – fire extinguishers, defensible space, food, water – to keep your family safe?” he asked. “Take these things seriously.”
The evening concluded with a question-and-answer period featuring inquiries from the audience that mostly clarified and expanded upon points that had already come up. Much of the talk involved dangers and risk, but despite the anxious nature of the subject matter, the mood was upbeat and the news wasn’t all bad.
“I’ve been up in the burned area a number of times,” said Lofaro. “People expect it to be like this charred moonscape, but it’s not that. It’s vibrant and green and really encouraging.”