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Storytelling around the fire
Locals reflect one year after Lake Christine tragedy
Lake Christine Fire
Life hasn’t been the same around these parts since the Lake Christine Fire blew up in July 2018. In team coverage this week, Roaring Fork Weekly Journal correspondents report how locals have been impacted, what has since changed and ponder whether an event of this magnitude could happen again. - photo by Craig Turpin

Valley locals this week reflected on life and lessons learned in the year since the Lake Christine Fire.

“I have a newfound fear in my life. I live on Basalt Mountain and I watched it happen, wondering if my house was burning down or not. We lucked out that day because the wind wasn't normal. If it was our house would be gone. All it takes is one guy with a match or something to make me nervous. My wife and I sat in our car watching from the high school with our cats and dogs for 14 hours. We were out of our house for 13 days and businesses in town lost two weeks, which was hard. The community did come together during that time for sure, and on the back side of it, talking to people, we all notice how it's affected us. We had a normal winter and spring for the first time in 10 years this year, but I just keep thinking how it can all dry out again.”

 – Rick Okun

“It’s made me appreciate the community we live in more and the support we give each other. The day it was happening, I was horrified, and if it wasn’t for my family friends who helped us evacuate, I don't know what I would have done. We couldn’t stop watching fire balls go up all of a sudden and wondering if that was my house. You couldn’t take your eyes off it. Seeing how the community came together though was the good thing that came out of everything.”

– Lisa Robbiano

Brenda McCartney, owner of Heirlooms, (left) is pictured with Peggy Behr and Izzy the dog. - photo by Katie Hankinson
“I think that as a business owner and a community member, I have become more thoughtful around the impact the community has while undergoing such a life altering event. Everyone has a different way of dealing with tragedy. I had to just move to a place of trust for my business because we were in the path of the fire. I experienced so much angst with my fellow community people and I realized I needed to be more thoughtful about how people are affected by trauma and be aware of how it impacted everyone differently. I think for me it became more a matter of acceptance because I really thought the store (Heirlooms) was going to go, watching it come down the mountain. But I realized others were impacted differently and I wanted to have more awareness and empathy to take this on as a town. I can’t believe it’s been a year already. It put things into perspective about what matters.” 

– Brenda McCartney 

“I was very saddened that this happened to our little town and noticing how it affected everyone. We’re all very connected to Basalt, but I think the fire connected us even more and caused us to appreciate what we have.”

– Peggy Behr

CC's Cafe Staff
Cecelia Gonzales, seen with some of the staff at CC’s Cafe. - photo by Katie Hankinson
“For me there was a huge change. When we started this business, we signed last year on the first of July. And we just saw fires all around here and it was a stressful time. But it opened up a conscience. People can act like they don’t care but in that moment something happens and we realize how important it is to be educated. When we think about a human who doesn’t think about the consequences of change – we take away how to be good citizens and good humans. Change came as having a better conscience about being careful with everybody. Don’t ignore things like something won’t happen, it won’t be a possibility. Don’t say you don't care because it’s not you, not your house or your country or your family. We’re all together. I think you can feel Basalt lifting itself up again. It’s an opportunity. Looking back, it was terrifying. But what it did for us is not horrible. We’re here. And it’s beautiful. It’s recovering fast. The kids who started it made a big mistake, but it’s an opportunity for us to teach our own kids and ourselves to be responsible with the land and with each other. I see that in our community. We are all capable of damage, but we’re all capable of caring, too.” 

– Cecilia Gonzalez

“I’ve worked with trees my whole life and so with the loss of those 75 acres, I see it more as a loss of friends and to the land. It’s coming back though and it's beautiful. The day of the fire, my oldest son and I were watching it because it's seven minutes from our house to the top of the mountain and so it was something, watching the fire travel downhill and then up again. With the help of my sons and some very dear friends, we were able to evacuate our house and all our animals. I also went to the fire department and offered my water ski lake for them to use to fight the fire, and I helped as well with my sons for the next three days. What came out the most was my sons’ character. They may not think much of it, but their willingness to step in and do what they did said a lot – and that goes for everyone who helped to fight the fires, at the local and state level. Things are coming back around and it was something we experienced as a family and a community.”

– Ace Lane

Jay Edelmann
Jay Edelmann
“The biggest thing is the impact on the view. The mountain is going to be scarred for a long time. It’s a lingering reminder of what happened and why it happened. That’s the hardest part. It’s greener than I thought it would be and thank God we got a lot of snow. But now we’re worried about mudslides and all kinds of different things. You can’t not see it and think about it and I think that’s the hardest part.”

– Jay Edelmann

Wiltgen Family
Courtesy photo The Hone-Wiltgen family
“In the year since the fire, it’s been wild to watch my kids continue to process that very scary time. They are now both terrified whenever they see smoke, and a helicopter flying in the area is enough to elicit an almost panicked response. I’m constantly trying to explain that that was a one-time-thing (fingers crossed), but my son is pretty convinced that we will see fire coming down the hillside again this Fourth of July weekend. The processing continues…”

– Katie Hone-Wiltgen

“Life has changed in small ways. The sound of a helicopter now brings me some anxiety. That sound was the soundtrack of our 2018 summer! And while I appreciate and admire their work more than I ever thought possible, I hear that sound now, and my mind immediately sort of panics that there’s another fire somewhere! All of our important memories and keepsake items now live in storage tubs in the attic so that we can easily grab them and have all our photos albums in one spot to grab and go. I have a grab list so I won’t forget things if it ever happens again. Things I forgot when we evacuated last year. Like the wedding quilt my mom made us, my grandmothers’ quilts, our collection of unique ski themed Christmas ornaments, my recipe book... These are the type of things Kerry lost, and they are things I didn't think of in the chaos of evacuating. Now I have a list. The looming burn scar never fails to make me sad. Our valley was forever changed physically. Life has gone on, as it always does. But I am also forever changed by the experience. And I was barely touched by it. I can't even imagine how it feels for the Williams family. The hell of losing everything, the stress of rebuilding. So mostly I feel lucky and appreciative that life just went on and is as normal as it ever was!”

– Judi Simecek

“I live up the Frying Pan and it was wild to see it come down the mountain. Firefighters were camped in my driveway and I brought them coffee and donuts every morning. It was wild to see them cutting away the dead trees and creating barriers. It was horrible what happened, but also fun in a chaotic way to see the community come together.”

–Alice Pendleton

“It was an honor for us as a church to live out our mission of loving God and loving people in a time of need.”

–The Orchard Church, which served as an evacuee camp during the fire

“I would say my life has changed in a big way, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things more than I did before and also become more simplistic. I’ve realized I don’t need all the things I have or want to be happy, all I need is my loved ones. I remember when we got evacuated, literally 20 minutes after the fire started ’cause we lived on Silverado Drive at that point. I was told to pack my stuff and I sat in bed and called my parents to make sure they were OK. As soon I knew they were OK I left my apartment with my camera and dogs. I took nothing, not even an extra outfit, ’cause I didn’t care about any of my material things. It taught me to love my community and the people in it because at the end of the day they’re what make me smile and keep me going.”

–Meztly Esparza

“The fire was a brutal challenge for my family and me. My daughter, who was 4 at the time, didn’t understand why we couldn’t bring all of her toys or her new big girl bed when we evacuated. The sight of the flames scared her, and she slept in our bed for the better part of four months after it happened. My son didn’t, and still doesn’t really, fully understand, but now he points at the mountain and says it has a boo-boo whenever we walk through town or go to the park. I’m also thankful though, because I know we could have lost so much more. And as we were watching the flames come down the mountain that night, I just remember hugging my wife and holding my kids and thinking that was all I ever needed to get through.”

–Anthony Endler

“(My oldest] Isa has an interesting perspective as an 18-year-old in charge of evacuating her brother, cousin, pets, etc. as Karl and I were working. She does suffer anxiety during thunderstorms since the fire. My perspective is different. 4th of July and catering work is very busy, this is when clients are in town and you work a lot. I was off July 3rd, when the call came in at 5:45 p.m. My husband, Karl, [who is a firefighter] responded immediately, running out of the house to join the Basalt Fire team. I started to pack, trying to be unobtrusive and not scare [my youngest] Seb and his friend who was staying the night. Saturday morning and Karl returned to the front lines, I did not see him for 26 hours; at home we moved our camper to a friend’s house in Carbondale as a precaution.

Saturday night I was working an event on Smuggler Mountain. Slightly surreal as the guests had a great time and many of us were checking phones to see if we had been evacuated. Karl called at 9 p.m. to say he thought the worst had passed and we would be OK that night. He called again at 9:30 p.m. to say he was headed to El Jebel as the mobile home park  was going up – he told me not to go home. I met up with Isa and Seb at our friend’s house in Carbondale, complete with evacuated pets, cousins and a few clothes.  

My life has changed since the fire:

1.  Our view has been irrevocably altered, Basalt Mountain will not return to its former green glory in my lifetime and is a constant reminder driving up and down the valley. It is sad to see the black, and know that due to climate change it most likely will never be the same.  

2.  The separation between Basalt and El Jebel; we are two different communities that coexist side by side, but are different animals. The fire confirmed my belief that we are independent entities with different strengths which showed up last July.” 

– Henrietta Oliver