At 6 p.m. on July 3, 2018, Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt was at her Basalt home along the river. It was a little later in the evening, when she and her husband Tim went out to dinner, that she started receiving multiple cell phone calls about the seriousness of the Lake Christine Fire.
“It seemed bad enough right away,” explains Mayor Whitsitt. “But when the wind picked up, it exploded. That’s when I got the first late-at-night call. It was a friend of mine who lives in Willits, and they said, ‘Have you looked out your door lately? Should we evacuate?’
“It was just a giant glow inferno,” Whitsitt describes. “I said, ‘I’m going to.’ ”
One of Mayor Whitsitt’s first concerns after the fire exploded was the wind. At the time, she remembered the 1994 Storm King Mountain fire in Glenwood Springs where initial reports described a more contained fire. Then it jumped the Colorado River and a six-lane highway.
“With fire, it’s all about the wind,” notes the mayor.
Reflecting on the Basalt community since last year’s fire, Mayor Whitsitt sees many positive aspects amongst the personal and community disasters that took place.
“The community has been a different place since the fire, in a good way,” she explains. “I just think a lot of the negativity that existed dissipated when people said, ‘you know what, I could have been dead. I could have lost my house. The things that I’m concerned about and railing on others about are nothing compared to what could have been.’ ”
Of all the stories and images of people working together and helping each other out during the fire, one image will never leave Mayor Whitsitt: “Were you there when the fire fighters came back in, and everybody was over at Crown Mountain waiting for them? Hundreds and hundreds of people, crying and hugging the fire fighters and cheering them as the trucks came in.”
Mayor Whitsitt is also appreciative of the technology used during last year’s fire.
“All of the incident team meetings were on Facebook live, and that was amazing,” notes the mayor. “I don't know why we don’t use that more often since it’s free. All of these special districts could use Facebook live, and it wouldn’t cost them anything. It’s an easy way to get transparency and incredibly popular because citizens can just pop in online, they don't have to find somebody to take care of their kids to see the meeting.”
Now, one year after the fire, as the town works with Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) to ensure the safety of the operations at the Basalt gun range, Mayor Whitsitt, along with the rest of the Basalt town council, has directed Basalt town manager Ryan Mahoney to follow up with CPW. Council wishes to build upon the recommendations of the local citizen’s task force and has continued concerns of their own.
Signage and the gun range’s hours of operation are at the top of that list in the short term, according to the mayor. She is less than happy that CPW maintains changing the signs up at the range is a process, and that it may take until 2020 to make that happen.
One year after the disastrous fire, the signage at the range does not prohibit firing tracer bullets or give any indication of what type of bullets are allowed and which are not allowed.
“Circle back every quarter, don’t wait six years,” says Mayor Whitsitt. “There are still issues that are not resolved, and I’m not going to say they are, but my concern is that we just can't put this away like we did last time (after the 2012 fire at the range). We need a quarterly check in on what's happening. We need somebody to stay on this, and the truth is that it can be partly the town, but honestly it would be better if it is a self-created citizen group that rides herd on what’s happening and what’s not happening.”
Looking back, anything that didn’t work well?
“I thought it went incredibly well, the response, and especially the emergency responders,” notes the mayor. “I can't see any fault at all.
“There was some amazing cooperation between the local teams and the national and state teams. And there was some luck. By all rights we should have lost all power with those power lines coming down. Utility people, who you don’t think about as heroes, were up there in that fire to keep our power up. Do you know how much worse it would have been if we didn’t have power and proper communication?”
And what would the mayor like to see in the long term?
“I think for the long term people pretty well agree that the range either needs to be somewhere else or it needs to be enclosed,” says Mayor Whitsitt.
“It will take people working together and raising money. There is private sector money and private sector people who could build it. I've heard that private companies own some of these gun ranges, and they charge money just like you do to pay to ski or river raft. I think that’s appropriate.”
Has she enjoyed being the mayor of Basalt?
“Almost all of it,” she says with a smile. “There is such huge gratification about the positive things we’ve accomplished. But I really want to see the park parcel, the CDC parcel, approved, one way or another, because that is really where the hate and the divisiveness in the community really took off to begin with.”
Term limited as mayor, Mayor Whitsitt will step down in January 2021.