In the year since Chief Scott Thompson first told this reporter that the Lake Christine Fire was started by tracer bullets, changes to the local landscape, awareness about fire prevention and support for the district have been, not surprisingly, significant.
“I think we’ve got more respect for what we’ve been saying about mitigation, ‘hardening’ homes and being prepared to leave (one’s home) for three days,” Thompson said this week from his office in El Jebel.
“The other thing that’s changed is the community support. People have come out in droves and have been very generous in helping us along. Now, with all the donations (more than $100,000 has been received), we’ve established a fund to use for mitigation projects,” he added.
One of those projects is installing a community water tank near Vista Hi Drive in El Jebel, a subdivision that heretofore had no fire hydrants. It’s also the neighborhood where firefighter Cleve Williams’ home was lost from the blaze. Williams was not available to comment this week but the chief said his colleague is in the process of rebuilding his residence, with a goal to be in before Christmas.
Burn scar monitoring
If the Lake Christine Fire was proof positive of the local firefighters’ worst fears, it may also have provided a wake-up call to those who thought “It could never happen here.”
“How many times did we say, ‘Someday we’re going to have a big fire?’ It seems like a lot of time it fell on deaf ears,” Thompson said.
“Now when there’s any smoke in the air, people start calling us. After Lake Christine, that seems like it’s been constant. People are genuinely concerned now,” he added.
Residents are also concerned about the rising rivers – Thompson said the Roaring Fork River’s gauging station at Hooks Lane in Emma hit a record 4,000 cubic feet per second at midnight on July 1. As well, the burn scar is constantly being monitored for debris flow. Thompson reiterated that people should sign up for Pitkin Alert or text LCFlood-888 777 for warnings and up-to-date information.
“By having some early warning, we may be able to save a life. We can’t save a life if we don’t notify people,” he said.
Thompson reiterated that one year ago it was “huge that we didn’t lose lives. Somebody was watching over our shoulder.”
About the Lake Christine burn scar, he said, “We are working with federal partners to get six rain monitoring systems” that have a satellite link to the National Weather Service.
In hindsight, is there something Thompson or the original responders should have done differently? In particular, should he have called for backups immediately through the mountain aid mutual agreement?
The chief defended his decision to not call for mutual aid on the night of July 3, noting that he believed those reinforcements would be needed later.
“It was a benefit to have those 10 engines and fresh people on the Fourth of July. I also knew our people were really good for 24 hours. And I remember the Coal Seam Fire and knew we were going to need a break 24 hours into it,” he said.
“We knew the fire would rapidly grow. I assumed it was going to move up the mountain and not come off the mountain like it did at 9 o’clock at night.”
In his 30 years of firefighting, Thompson said he’d never seen a fire as unpredictable as Lake Christine. Nor had he ever been involved with one that was left “not buttoned up” for months.
“There was that area that just wasn’t accessible (and the federal crews) let the thing go to September, let the winter put it out,” he said.
Of the two people who caused the fire, Richard Miller and Allison Marcus, Thompson said he told the district attorney that their actions weren’t deliberate but that “they should try to make amends by planting trees. I think they need to give back to the community. They took a lot from the community."
The Lake Christine Fire also put the kibosh on Thompson’s plans in July 2018 for a family and friends vacation to South Dakota. “We did go to Montana but the fire up there smoked us out,” he said, noting the irony of that event.