“All traffic is shut down at the El Jebel light due to a structure fire,” I read in the text, but I didn’t think twice about it, I was heading down to a thank you barbecue for the Lake Christine Firefighters at Jill Soffer’s house, and nothing was going to deter me. Thus far, I have been covering the fire from afar and I needed to get closer and capture the stories from the firefighters and those who had been evacuated. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.
Jill Soffer is a philanthropist largely focused on environmental progress, carbon reduction, and sustainable farming, and she was having a firefighter appreciation party for 200+ firefighters. Currently serving on the boards of The Sierra Club Foundation, Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, and The Wilderness Workshop, a group protecting the White River National Forest in the Colorado high country, Soffer was a developer and interior designer of sustainable “green” homes and a LEED Accredited Professional.
As we turned up the road to the barbecue, we proudly found ourselves behind five of the light green Carson Hotshot fire trucks and followed them up to the event, passing local firefighters along the way as they stood watch over the fire still burning in the hills one mile northwest of Basalt above the reservoir, where a Chinook Helicopter was drawing water from.
Soffer’s house is set in the most spectacular of surroundings with Mt. Sopris in the distance changing colors in the smoke-hazed sunset. I began to circulate, listening to conversations and getting a read on whether anybody would like to share their stories, discovering quickly that people welcomed the opportunity to talk.
Although, I had been in communication with friends who had to evacuate twice, first from Basalt and then from Willits, it has been difficult to gauge the despair, fear, anxiety, panic and stress that our friends downvalley have been experiencing these past few weeks. With each story, many from friends, the trauma caused by The Lake Christine Fire becomes viscerally real. The first couple I approached, also friends of mine, began their story. Both Architects, the husband explained the tall order it was to be the one to decide what to save and what to leave when having to evacuate. His wife and two children were out of town that week, a definite blessing, but what it meant was that he was on his own when making what could be life-changing decisions on saving cherished possessions. Upon reaching his wife on the phone he was told to get her office folders and so he went to the drawers and dumped everything into the only container he could find, a postal plastic box without a top that he just happened to have brought home recently. He then took down art from the walls, gathered together all the wedding and photo albums he could find, along with any valuable possessions, plus a backpack of clothes, and shoved as much as he could into his open-air jeep, praying that nothing would fly out as he drove off to find friends that would take him in. At the same time, business associates were dismantling all electronics in the architect office, electronics that were rebooted and dismantled three times with each new evacuation report. Once evacuated, he had nothing else to do but wait while witnessing a ball of fire rapidly roar down the hill toward town and his home that he and his wife designed together. His wife, who had just gotten back, chimed in with big earnest eyes saying that she felt the need to get home to support her husband who clearly was in a high state of emotional distress, his head nodding in agreement – yes, he needed her back, the stress has all been a bit too much to bare alone.
Hearing the stories and then interviewing the firefighters indeed confirms the magnitude of the dangers and stresses that thousands of people have endured. According to inciweb (Incident Web Information), Eagle County completed the repopulation of the communities surrounding the fire; at the height of the incident approximately 2100 residents were evacuated and 6,822 acres thus far have burned. Full containment is expected by Tuesday July 31st. Other sites claim that at least 583 fire personnel have been deployed, including 16 hand crews, 35 engines, three water tenders and five helicopters.
Throughout the evening each story emphasized so emphatically the gratitude for our firefighters, many of whom are still out there fighting as the fire still burns, as well as for all the volunteers who stopped everything that they were doing to help feed the firefighters, take in evacuees, and move horses and animals. The appreciation for that gratitude by the firefighters confirms something that this valley has always known, that we have the most incredible community of people who gather together in the most stressful of situations to help and be there for one another, and there are indeed heroes who stand amongst us now more than ever.