On September 29, the Two Elk fire flared up near a gun range in Minturn and is still burning at this writing. It's the second Colorado blaze to be associated with a gun range in less than three months, following the devastating Lake Christine fire in Basalt. But while the Basalt shooting range was closed for months after the latter incident, it reopened two weeks to the day before the Two Elk fire was discovered. Not that everyone thinks it was a great idea.
"We know there are people in the community who would prefer to see the range closed or moved, and many people who want it where it is," says Mike Porras, public information officer for the northwest region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state agency that manages the Basalt range. "But everybody agrees that at the Basalt State Wildlife Area, it won't be business as usual."
The varied opinions among Basalt residents about the range are understandable given the damage that resulted: more than 12,000 acres consumed, three homes destroyed and lives disrupted for many weeks after July 3, when the conflagration came to life.
And that's not to mention the criminal case against Richard Miller and Allison Marcus. The two were arrested on suspicion of fourth-degree arson for allegedly causing the Lake Christine fire through their use of tracer bullets, which have been banned on state and federal lands in Colorado because of their pyrotechnic charges.
The latest fire started very close to what's officially known as the Two Elk Shooting Area, but Kelly Jensen, visitor information assistant with the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, stresses that a cause hasn't been established. "It's still under investigation," she says — although the blaze is believed to have been human-caused.
In the meantime, plenty of popular attractions in the area are currently off-limits, as depicted graphically in the map above. "The Two Elk trail is closed," Jensen notes. "Also the Cougar Ridge trail. And, of course, the shooting range is closed."
Fortunately, the fire isn't nearly as large as the one in and around Basalt. As of September 30, the most recent update available, Two Elk was estimated at 26 acres, with 25 percent containment. And thanks to the efforts of multiple ground crews and air resources, including Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) and helicopters that used retardant and water bucket drops, the fire's growth appears to have been arrested, and full containment is expected soon.
Nonetheless, drought conditions in much of the state mean the risk of additional fires remains high even as hunting season in Colorado is in full swing; click to see specific dates related to elk, moose and more.
Porras confirms that hunters were among those lobbying for the Basalt Range to reopen. "Many of them wanted to use it because they were concerned that their equipment was ready for use in the upcoming season," he notes.
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For that reason, CPW upgraded the range to enhance safety. According to Porras, "We constructed a higher berm and cleared a lot of foliage and brush in areas where there was the potential for catching fire. We worked to make the range safer than it's ever been, and we even have range safety officers there, making sure everyone is being safe. And we're continuing the process. We formed a steering committee, and we're having ongoing conversations about what we should do going forward. Nothing is off the table."
Still, range advocates believe it's safer for people to do their shooting in a controlled environment rather than finding a random spot in the woods.
"We don't want to disparage anybody who uses public land for that activity," Porras emphasizes, "although certainly we recommend that anyone who goes shooting outside a maintained range practices the utmost safety for their activity in current fire conditions. And when we consulted with local officials, they let us know they felt more comfortable with people using a maintained range than dispersing into public lands."
Where a single spark can lead to a disaster — something the folks in Minturn and Basalt understand all too well.