The worst fears about the Lake Christine fire near Basalt expressed by firefighters prior to the weekend came true. According to the most recent update from authorities, shared during the evening of Sunday, July 22, the blaze has now ballooned to more than 11,000 acres, and containment has fallen to less than a third of the total.
The situation had seemed to be on a steady road to improvement last week, with nearly 60 percent containment and the announcement that all evacuees could return to the area. But a stretch of hot, dry weather caused matters to deteriorate, and late on Thursday, July 19, many residents were given the heads-up that they might have to leave again.
"A pre-evacuation notice is in place for residents of Cedar Drive, Toner Creek, Seven Castles, and Taylor
Road, due to increased fire behavior on the eastern flank of the Lake Christine fire," an announcement about the situation stated. "The Eagle County Sheriff’s Office is contacting residents in these affected areas. Residents should be prepared to leave their homes in the event an evacuation notice is ordered."
Today the residents of Cedar Drive, Toner Creek, Seven Castles, and Taylor Road remain on a pre-evacuation status, joined by folks in the Missouri Heights neighborhood.
According to the ECSO, the blaze was sparked on the evening of July 3, and by 8:07 p.m. on July 5, it had grown to more than 5,000 acres, with 0 percent containment. By then, 1,793 residents had been evacuated from 664 homes and three residences were lost.
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As of 5:55 p.m. on July 15, according to the federal InciWeb page created for the Lake Christine fire, the involved acreage stood at 6,822 and containment was estimated at 59 percent.
A subsequent update, posted at 7:23 p.m. July 19, showed containment holding at 59 percent. But the number of acres consumed was up to 7,701, and officials admitted they wouldn't be surprised if that figure went up another 500 acres by the afternoon.
"Air operations on the fire were heavy yesterday, with two Type-1 Chinook helicopters dropping water and
three single-engine-air-tankers (SEATS) airplanes dropping retardant to support crews on the north flank of the fire," the InciWeb page revealed. "Hotter and drier weather aided fire growth, and a well-developed smoke column was visible into the evening. Similar fire behavior is expected for today, and surrounding communities will be impacted by smoke, depending upon wind direction."
The fire's seriousness grew in large part because of meteorological developments.
"Hot and dry weather conditions occurred today with highs from the upper 80s to lower 90s, and minimum percent humidity in the mid to lower teens," the page pointed out. "Ridge and terrain winds were gusty at times in the afternoon and early evening. These conditions caused some isolated flareups with primarily creeping and smoldering as well as isolated torching."
The possibility of the weather moderating over the weekend produced some optimism, despite oversight of the firefighting effort being transferred from a Type 3 incident management team to a Type 2 IMT — an acknowledgement of a worsening scenario. But Mother Nature didn't help as much as was hoped.
As of 7:41:24 p.m. on July 22, the size of the Lake Christine fire was estimated at 11,459 acres and containment was down to 32 percent.
Here's the explanation on the Inciweb page: "The Lake Christine Fire moved into heavy, beetle-killed fuels Saturday and produced a very large smoke column. The fire has pushed predominantly to the north; creating new spot fires short distances ahead of the fire and establishing in thick stands of heavy mixed conifer. As the fire moves toward Cattle Creek, it is transitioning from thick timber fuels to aspen and Gambel oak."
In response, the account continues, "Firefighters used SEATs (single engine air tankers) to place eight loads of retardant around the cabins in these lighter fuels where it more effectively slows the fire’s growth. In addition to retardant, they have placed sprinklers and trimmed vegetation to protect the structures and provide more defensible space. These preparations will enable them to introduce fire to protect the structures if it becomes necessary. In the northwest, hand crews, heavy equipment and aviation resources were used to improve and extend direct containment line. Predominantly western winds have assisted firefighters’ efforts, and direct containment lines here held despite increased fire activity."
Allison Marcus, 22, and Richard Miller, 23, surrendered to authorities on July 15 after being accused of starting the fire by shooting tracer rounds at the Basalt SWA shooting range maintained by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which closed additional facilities in the state as a cautionary measure.
Here's the list of shooting-range closures:
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Byers Canyon Rifle Range — Grand County
Basalt State Wildlife Area shooting range — Eagle County
Plateau Creek State Wildlife Area — Mesa County
Cameo Temporary Shooting Range — Mesa County
West Rifle Creek State Wildlife Area — Garfield County
Hayden Range — Routt County
Yampa Range — Routt County
The two face charges of fourth-degree arson and firing woods or prairie.
Conviction for fourth-degree arson, a Class 4 felony, carries possible imprisonment of two to six years and fines from $2,000 to $500,000 in Colorado. Firing woods or prairie, a Class 6 felony, is punishable by from one year to eighteen months behind bars and fines from $1,000 to $100,000.
Update: This post has been updated to include new information about the Lake Christine fire as of July 23.