Grateful for Community, and the Roofs Over Our Heads, in the Wake of the Lake Christine Fire

This month, hundreds of folks in El Jebel and Blue Lake will gather to give thanks for food, company, and the roofs over their heads. Documentary filmmaker Barry Stevenson will be among them.

On July 4, Barry could see smoke rising from the ridge above his home near Blue Lake. He shot some video, then took a dinner break. Half an hour later, he returned to see flames shooting up more than 80 feet.

“I was almost in shock,” he recalls. Worried about friends, Stevenson approached some firefighters in the street, asking for details. They were newly arrived federal fire managers and didn’t have much information to offer yet.  But as he walked away, Barry overheard their conversation. “They thought they were going to lose the whole town.”

Post-fire aerial photos reveal an eerily straight line scribed behind El Jebel. That’s where Eagle County Fire Chief Doug Cupp chose to draw his line in the sand, lighting a backfire that saved not only the 80 homes in peril that night, but also the towns of El Jebel and Basalt.

Hundreds of local families will celebrate this Thanksgiving in their homes thanks to courage of the first responders, and thanks to the gifts of leadership, trust, and foresight they brought to their tasks.

According to recent studies, the number of acres burned by wildfires in the West has doubled since 1985. Reasons are myriad; most importantly, climatic temperatures have risen. Heat dries brush and forests, turning them to tinder. Man has also prevented natural wildfires, which would have thinned the forests’ fuel every 35 years or so. Understanding the risk, firefighters have trained and prepared. But they need 24 hours to gear up for a major fire; when fierce micro-gust winds pushed flames downhill toward Blue Lake, they had 20 minutes.

Firefighters intervene in a chaotic chain reaction that involves the slope, the location of homes, the weather, and the available fuel. They’re looking for any lucky break—rain, a road crossing the fire’s path, a gap in the trees—anything that can break the chain. On July 4, there were no breaks.

Determined not to trade lives for property, Cupp calculated that the “only option was to put the fire on our terms, to push our folks to the threshold.” To create the break behind homes in El Jebel, firefighters had to battle 50 mile-per-hour winds, intense heat—and the clock. “We had to burn the backfire line before the main fire hit it,” says Cupp.

Veteran firefighters know that burning homes – which generate smoke containing arsenic, cadmium, asbestos, and other toxics – create dangers of a different magnitude than those posed by forest fires.

“If a home burns, I’m going to pull out the firefighters,” Cupp had vowed. He pushed the teams to the limit, while warning, “If one home goes, they all go.”

Filmmaker Stevenson’s home, plus hundreds more, stand today not only in testament to courage and leadership, but also to trust. “You must be trusted when you give an order and put lives at risk,” Cupp explains. “When I gave my decision to Chief Goodwin, the operations section chief, he said, ‘Yeah, I trust you.’ If he didn’t, we would have lost the subdivision.”

“It works the other way too. When I call on the radio for three more engines, I have no idea where they’re going to come from,” says Cupp. “It’s a real testament to the middle leaders that it all worked, with each of them assigning five to seven engine companies. I give the plan. They have to figure it out and say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to make Doug’s plan work’.”

Ultimately, the firefight and evacuations involved more than 38 government agencies: local towns, counties, police, firefighters from 28 states, EMTs, the Forest Service, the BLM, and many others. Colorado Animal Rescue took in pets. The Roaring Fork School District sheltered evacuees. Many Hispanic residents feared evacuating their homes, but the Eagle County Sheriff’s office assured the community, in English and Spanish, that their safety was a priority. No questions would be asked in any shelter.

On July 10, hundreds of locals—young and old, Anglos and Latinos—lined Crown Mountain Park to thank firefighters heading back to their tent village. In Stevenson’s video of the rally (at OutsideAdventureMedia.com), Supply Unit Leader Linda Blondeau, a 20-year Forest Service firefighter from Montana, avers, “I have never seen people line up and cheer our trucks as they come in.” Logistics Section Chief Ed Hinds, a 30-year firefighting veteran, agrees, adding, “I saw the smiles on the faces of the firefighters last night, and they were just in awe.”

Like his colleagues, Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine gives thanks for everyone’s safety. He also credits the foresight of an unusual compact: Last June, he says, a “roomful of fire chiefs” sat down, tallied their resources and drew up a “Mountain Area Mutual Aid Agreement.”  While federal aid is essential, fire chiefs know that it involves red tape and takes time. As Balentine puts it, “We figured out how we were going to hit the ‘Oh sh*t button.’” During and since the Lake Christine Fire, that agreement has let local fire chiefs “pick up the phone and say, ‘I need three engines’ and have them on the way in minutes, not hours.”

Balentine asks that the community show support by “voting yes on tax amendments that buy us the tools we need to get the job done.” Several appear on November’s ballot.

Stevenson—who is making a documentary and looking for video shot by local residents—reflects on how the white and Latino communities came together at the thank-you parade. “I haven’t seen that before, maybe ever, not in the light of day,” he says. “I’m grateful that for one evening, there was no race, no politics. Just community.”