Eagle County Sheriff: Gratitude and fear are overarching emotions during fire evacuation (column)
Parades were being organized, barbecues planned, hikes and bike rides in the works, disappointment about lack of fireworks but plans for drone flyovers (creativity reins), with red, white and blue everywhere you looked … this Fourth of July was going to be amazing. All was normal in Basalt … until 5:52 p.m. Tuesday, July 3.
Billows of black smoke suddenly emerged from above the Basalt skyline. Alarms ran through first-responder offices across the entire region, including Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and even down to Summit counties, as the winds blew the fire in unpredictable directions. Between 6 and 9 p.m., the fire had multiplied in size so quickly that the entire town of Basalt was in jeopardy. At night, things calmed down a bit, only to pick up again on July 4, threatening populated El Jebel, beginning with the trailer park.
Fire takes on a life of its own and, those on the frontline will tell you, it lets you know that it’s in control. This one required exceptional countermeasures, and the attack team ranged from local offices to state, regional and federal agencies.
Professionals will tell you that fire can be a tease, acting like it’s about to subside, only to surprise you with a huge flash of flames emerging from an unexpected spark. The vision of a wall of red flames, combined with 40 to 60 mph winds headed in your direction, will send a “chill” up the spine of even the calmest person.
The Sheriff’s Office is central to the coordination and communications of these critical events. With so many people on board, it is a blessing that can quickly become a nightmare if resources are not properly allocated and directed. This element of cooperation is unique, and we are blessed to have such a professional group in our region. No one is concerned about territorial boundaries when lives are at stake; we just get the job done and handle administrative details later.
What escapes imagination is the sheer terror of the moment, particularly when that moment lasts days. Since law enforcement must prepare the scene for firefighters to engage, it is imperative that we ensure the safety of all elements in the area. One of the most heartbreaking tasks is working with frightened residents and others who are often frozen in fear, unable to think clearly, sometimes becoming literally immobile.
We prepare for such emergencies regularly, yet no situation is exactly like another. Knocking on doors and giving people just minutes to collect their valuables and potentially escape with their lives, often in tears, stays with you long after the fire danger has passed.
Our deputies were the first ones in the trailer park: calming residents as they could see approaching flames, while carrying crying children to car seats, helping residents gather nearby pets, assisting the elderly and disabled into cars, helping families quickly load their most prized belongings, jump-starting cars that seemed to defiantly refuse to vacate, convincing those who were in denial that leaving was a requirement, not an option, attempting to communicate the urgency without imparting fear to those with limited language capabilities and assuring everyone they would be fine, as the hot smoke and ash covered their faces.
An unexpected challenge emerged within the Hispanic community, which worried about an ICE roundup at the emergency shelters. I personally phoned the agency and was told they would absolutely not take advantage of this emergency and their hearts went out to those affected by the fires. In total, we evacuated more than 200 homes.
This organized chaos was conducted amongst incredibly deafening noise … sirens, helicopters, people screaming, crying, yelling, as they tried to find loved ones and missing pets and gather cherished possessions, while imagining the worst … a life with lost memories.
The area residents were not the only ones in panic. Spouses and family members worried that the kiss goodbye to their first responders might be their last. Moving families to safety required running toward the danger to make sure every last detail was secure and every possible threat was addressed. We were all committed … no loss of life would occur on our watch, and our families know that means: We will risk our own in the process.
With only two to three hours of sleep per night, our first responders gave it their all. Eagle County alone has spent more than 4,500 man-hours preparing neighborhoods for firefighters and defending and protecting the community during this entire event, and it’s not over yet. Remember to thank those doughnut eaters and hose draggers next time you see one.
We can proudly claim that the side threats of vandalism and theft did not occur anywhere during this incident. The entire community stepped up and did what they do best: support one another. Every day, I am reminded of how blessed I am to serve those who live in this incredible county.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at email@example.com.