A town still jittery from 2018’s Lake Christine Fire got a scare Monday morning when a structure fire that consumed a workshop building just east of downtown Basalt sent large clouds of smoke billowing into the sky and filled the air with what sounded a lot like gunfire.
There were no injuries in the blaze, and the flames were confined to a single structure, but with massive fires near Los Angeles and the threat of wildfires across the West, the sight of so much smoke understandably gave Basalt residents a jolt after what the town went through last year.
“It put up quite a bit of smoke in Basalt,” said Roaring Fork Fire Rescue Authority Fire Chief Scott Thompson. “So I’m sure that it freaked out some people.”
It wasn’t just the fire, though, that caught Basaltines’ attention. There were guns and ammunition stored in the workshop, which is on the Guido Family Ranch and Colorado Tree Ranch on Two Rivers Road, and the blaze caused hundreds of bullets to fire, sending fragments – Thompson termed it “shrapnel” – of copper shell casings flying.
“It’s not something that we deal with every day,” said Thompson, “but it’s not unusual for a garage or a barn or a house to have ammunition going off. If it’s not in a chambered weapon it’s not super dangerous as long as the firefighters are wearing their personal protective equipment.”
One piece of shrapnel broke a window of the ranch house, which Thompson estimated to be 50 or 60 feet away, but other than that there was no real damage from the exploding casings. This was aided, in part, by the workshop’s construction, which mostly consists of concrete, a fireproof design type that also helped keep the blaze restrained and minimize the chances of it spreading.
“It really helped contain the fire for us because we didn’t have the fire blowing out the side of the building,” said Thompson, who also credited the shop’s sheet-rocked roof for being “an advantage to us” as crews from a number of agencies from Aspen to Carbondale responded to the blaze.
The first calls about the fire came in to the Pitkin County Regional Emergency Dispatch Center at 8:14 a.m. Monday morning. In a stroke of bad luck, personnel from the Basalt fire station, just down the street from the ranch, were already out on a medical call at the time. Instead, RFFRA volunteers and personnel and fire trucks from the El Jebel fire station were first to respond and were on the scene in eight minutes.
“The career staff were just returning back to the El Jebel station,” said Thompson. “They were coming back from an odor call in Willits, so that kind of sped them up. They were in their gear and already in the engine.”
When they got to the ranch, firefighters saw “heavy smoke and flames coming from doors and windows” and heard bullets firing, according to the incident report. Responders also noted that the burning workshop was in close proximity to a historic barn on the property, so it was decided that protecting the barn would be the main goal in fighting the blaze.
“It’s old, dry barn wood, and there’s just a vehicle pathway between them,” said Thompson. “That’s what was spooking us. That was our priority: keep it from burning the big barn.”
Besides the flying shrapnel and old wooden barn, other factors that made the fire potentially hazardous included a propane tank behind the barn, gas tanks in the ground next to the shop and power lines running to the shop.
“Those are all things we have to deal with,” said Thompson. “That’s a pretty regular case. Fires are complex. There’s no easy fire. ‘There’s no safe fire,’ is another way to look at it.”
The blaze was mostly extinguished by 9:30 a.m., and despite the extensive damage the fire caused to the building and all the smoke and flames it produced, Thompson believed it was never much of a threat to spark a larger conflagration.
“Fortunately, it was 8 in the morning, when the relative humidity is up so high, and no wind, and it was farm pasture all around it,” said Thompson. “We didn’t have the potential for a wildland fire.”
Fire marshals are investigating the cause of the blaze, but the day after the fire it had yet to be determined. Nothing untoward or criminal is suspected regarding the fire or the ammunition, which Thompson noted was not an unusual amount for a gun owner to have.
As far as Basaltines’ frayed nerves from the “here we go again” nature of all the smoke, Thompson took this occasion to remind everyone that while we were lucky this time around, if you want to keep yourself and your family safe, he has the same advice he always has.
“I’m sure it scared people,” said Thompson, “but the thing that they should do is sign up for Pitkin Alert (pitkincounty.com/alertcenter) because if there is something that’s going to be a danger to them, we’re going to reach out to them through Pitkin Alert.”