Summit County firefighters return after aiding crews in the Lake Christine Fire | SummitDaily.com

Summit County firefighters return after aiding crews in the Lake Christine Fire

Looking across Highway 82 toward El Jebel, the night sky turns orange from the Lake Christine fire on Wednesday, July 4, in El Jebel.

Summit County has been spared from more wildfires since the Buffalo Mountain Fire last month, which was contained at 81 acres but came as close to destroying homes as any local wildfire in years.

However, other High Country communities haven't been as lucky. The Lake Christine Fire near Basalt has grown to nearly 6,700 acres, forced the evacuation of hundreds and is still raging.

The fire started on July 3 when an El Jebel couple shot tracer rounds at a shooting range. However, it started small and wasn't considered too much of a threat at the time.

The next day, the Fourth of July, Summit firefighters marched in parades in Breckenridge and Frisco, soaking in adulation and gratitude from the community for their heroic efforts last month. Almost immediately after the festivities ended, a call for help came in. The Lake Christine fire had gotten dangerous — really dangerous.

"It blew up from 300 acres to 2,000 acres in an afternoon," said Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino. "It got really bad really fast."

The aggressiveness of the fire that night forced immediate evacuations of nearly 1,800 residents and over 600 homes.

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Berino did not hesitate to load up a crew on Summit's brand-spanking-new fire engine, Wildland 11, and head out to Basalt to help in any way they could.

"The engine lost the new car smell while we were out there," Berino quipped. "Now it smells like smoke and burning wood."

Summit sent resources to Basalt as part of a "mutual aid" agreement among fire districts across the country, in which communities share emergency resources when fires or other disasters are too much for a single rural town or county to handle.

Berino and his crew joined 500 other firefighters from across the country at a "tent city" that had been set up for the wildland crews. Much like a military base camp, the temporary community was pitched up overnight and had to deal with the logistics of serving a large number of people under terrible conditions in a remote corner of the world.

"They had to figure out things like how to get food, water, supplies, toilets out for 500 people," Berino said. "Sometimes they have shower units, but not always. It also has room and facilities to work on engines and refuel them before they go out."

Berino, who served as a district supervisor, commanded a crew of hotshot firefighters and engines as they worked the raging inferno that first night, non-stop from evening to morning.

"It was, hot, dusty and windy," Berino remembers. "At night, it's even more dangerous because you can lose track of where your escape routes are. It's surreal, there are walls of flame and smoke around you, and it's very easy to get disoriented."

Berino and his crews worked the fire from dusk till dawn, and then again for 18 hours straight the next day. While Summit's fire engine had to come back on the July 5 due to other commitments, Berino stayed at his post for another four days to help protect structures still at risk. The combined effort of the hundreds of firefighters saved many homes in Basalt and Carbondale. However, three homes were destroyed that first night, including one belonging to a fellow firefighter.

"We felt very sad for the community, those were some very nice homes," Berino said.

After six exhausting days, Berino returned home Thursday after crews had ensured no more homes were at risk. At the moment, the Lake Christine fire is 55 percent contained and heavy rain over the past few days has helped calm the fire significantly.

As we still count the days down to monsoon season, more wildfires may spring up in and around Summit County at a moment's notice. Berino said that if our neighbors need help again, Summit will be there.