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Opinion

Op-Ed: Finding rare glimpses of unity in an ominous wildfire season

A July 4th wildfire in Basalt Colorado is fought on the ground and in the air. Dry conditions creat
A July 4th wildfire in Basalt Colorado is fought on the ground and in the air.
(Courtesy of Pete McBride)

Just before the Fourth of July, a fire broke out at a gun range in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, just outside the town of Basalt. Twenty-somethings had ignited the brush with incendiary tracer rounds.

Yes, we have a gun range in Basalt. And we have a gun shop on Main Street. But the valley’s main business is skiing, and Aspen has hosted Gay Ski Week for four decades. That’s Colorado for you, the atom-smashing core of our country’s opposing and intersecting value systems, the yin and yang of Trump’s America.

The Lake Christine fire didn’t make distinctions, of course, and neither have the other infernos burning in Colorado and across the West. The Basalt blaze climbed a ridge near the gun range and tore down the valley. Two days later, on July 4, it descended into the town of El Jebel.

These fireworks were deadly serious and no fun at all, a billowing, apocalyptic orange and black ball that cascaded down a 1,000-foot hillside with such galloping intensity that it exploded pinyons and junipers in advance. In one case, trees blew up 40 feet from a firefighter. He looked down to find his boots melted.

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It didn’t matter who was president that day, or the next, when an all Latino hotshot team from Oregon showed up. Their motto: ‘Fight Fuego with Fuego!’

The fire came so fast and hot that the firefighters knew they would be overrun. So they did what desperate people do: They took a measure of last resort, hucking flares into the brush between them and the blaze, triggering a backfire.

It worked. The flares burned the fuel the fire needed to continue its run and saved El Jebel.

The firefighters were just guys from around here: some great skiers, others accountants, paramedics, contractors. They have names like Steve Howard, Brian Davies, Bryce Halverson.

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Some last names of the people they tried to protect: Medrano, Rodriguez. The Martinez family’s trailer burned, one of three houses lost.

It didn’t matter who was president that day, or the next, when an all Latino hotshot team from Oregon showed up. Their motto: “Fight Fuego with Fuego!” My South American office mate wasn’t hung up on division when she remarked: “I’m a germaphobe, but I was hugging those dirty firefighters like they were family.” Neither was the Southern waiter who told my family: “You’re evacuees? Whatever this might mean to you, I’ll be praying for you.”

Before the miracle save of El Jebel, Basalt nearly burned down. Hundred-foot flames towered above town and fingers of fire probed gullies, threatening homes. In a pitched battle, Chinook helicopters sucked water from a nearby lake and targeted the encroaching blaze as enormous DC-10s swooped in like stunt planes and dropped massive loads of red retardant, painting what became a bombproof fire line.

After burning through 6,300 acres, the Lake Christine fire is now more than 40% contained. Pretty soon, many in the Roaring Fork Valley will go back to observing the usual political fault lines.

We will disagree over whether there should be a gun range in town, with some pointing out that the fire was caused not by the range but by tracer bullets. Had the suspects used conventional rounds, they will say, there would be no fire.

We will lament the cost of the fire — $3.7 million and counting — and wring our hands over who will pay for it: taxpayers, through federal and state funds, whether the right thinks that’s a good idea or not.

Some of us will point out that global warming, another hugely polarizing subject, played a role in the fire. In certain corners, this warning will fall on deaf ears.

But for the moment, we are handing cold soda waters to state troopers through our car windows and using community funds to buy underwear for the Martinez family, who already have a new place to live. If you look, you’ll find similar signs of unity in California’s fire-stricken towns, from Montecito to Goleta to Alpine.

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My family evacuated twice, first from our house, then from the spot we had been evacuated to. When we returned home, I noticed that firefighters had done many of the household tasks I find tiring — unscrewed and moved propane tanks, cleared wood, benches and hammocks from around the house. I thought about how they did these chores in heavy gear, in terrible heat and under massive duress, with apparent loving care, for total strangers.

I relayed this observation to a firefighter over the weekend, a guy from Boise who had traveled to the valley to help. “It’s remarkable,” I started to say, “when we are so divided...” He finished my sentence in a way that surprised me: “Yeah, you can’t even trust your neighbor.” But you can, it turns out.

Auden Schendler is a senior vice president of Aspen Skiing Co. and a board member of Protect Our Winters.

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