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Warm Memories: Lake Christine Fire brought out the best in Basalt one year ago
Fire bomber
One of the most enduring images of the Lake Christine Fire involved slurry bombers dropping fire retardants on the flames. - photo by Craig Turpin

To see Basalt Mountain now, in this most verdant of summers, is to understand the story of the Lake Christine Fire and its effect on the Mid-Valley. The charred piñon trees stand as a stark reminder of the blaze and the heroic firefighter response that saved all but three homes from catastrophe. But the piñons aren’t the first thing you notice when you look at the mountain.

The first thing you notice is how green the mountainsides are all around the dead piñons and how quickly the vegetation seems to be rebounding. A lot of that is attributable to the effects of a snowy winter and wet spring, but a lot is also the result of reseeding and replanting projects that started before the fire was fully contained and recently brought out hundreds of volunteers to assist in the effort.

Because that’s the real story of the fire. That’s what folks remember a year later. It’s not the blaze itself, terrifying and spectacular as it was. It’s the way people responded to it. We recall the flames as they burned out of control last Independence Day, certainly, but when we look back on the whole ordeal, the flames aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.

The images that truly define the fire start with helicopters dipping buckets into Kodiak Ski Lake for water and the massive DC-10 flying out of the Fryingpan Valley to lay down a slurry line with pinpoint precision to help save Old Town. 

Then there was the makeshift emergency shelter at the high school, which had to turn away volunteers and was donated so much food that they had to ask people to take as much as they could. They also had far fewer evacuees spending the night than they’d prepared for. It seems nearly everyone had friends to stay with.

In neighborhoods that weren’t evacuated, people came out into the streets to watch the fire and ending up talking with their neighbors in a way that they never had before. Fires have the ability to tear communities apart, but the Lake Christine Fire’s legacy may be that it helped bring our community together like nothing else could.

Perhaps the most poignant recollection of the fire, for those of us lucky enough to have been there, was the afternoon about a hundred citizens turned up at the entrance to Crown Mountain Park to welcome the firefighters home after a long shift on the front lines. It was a genuinely moving experience for all concerned, and hardened firefighters, with tears in their eyes, said they’d never seen a welcome like that before.

And with everything that happened during the fire, what was the one part that made real national headlines? It was when Basalt resident Neil Diamond showed up unannounced with his guitar at a firefighter meeting and – despite having retired from performing six months earlier due to Parkinson’s disease – played a heartfelt rendition of “Sweet Caroline” as a way of saying thanks.

It may be that we have the luxury of associating positive memories with the fire because we got lucky. The combination of a superhuman effort by first responders and plain old good fortune meant that only three families lost their homes when hundreds could have. But that would be trivializing the role the community played in making everything as positive as it was.

From local firefighters on the front lines to chefs who donated food to families that took other families in to people who just stood up and applauded when a soot-covered firefighter came into a store, the Lake Christine Fire brought out the best in people from all walks of life, and for that, we can be grateful.

Yes, the fire was terrifying. For many people it was disruptive, and for three families it was tragic. For that reason alone – not to mention the millions that were spent fighting it – obviously, we wish the fire had never happened. But in a lot of ways that are still being felt today, it’s fair to say that that fire was a net positive for this town.

So as we look at Basalt Mountain now, we can see a parallel to the fire’s effect on the Mid-Valley. It’s not about the piñons that burned a year ago. It’s about the way the mountain has bounced right back.