Something struck Mark Hutchinson while he was fighting the rapidly spreading Lake Christine Fire on July 4.
“In the yard of a home we were protecting was a statue of Our Blessed Mother Mary,” he said. “This was a simple reminder to say a quick prayer.”
But, as the situation worsened, doubts of the crew’s success crept in.
“When the flame front arrived, I felt overwhelmed with the high winds and the fire conditions we were facing,” said Hutchinson, “and I almost ordered my crew to abandon the structures that we were assigned to protect.
“Yet, I also took confidence in my supervisor and in the hot shot crew who specialize in fighting wildland fires,” he said.
The crew held their position.
“Several times, I noticed the statue of Saint Mary,” said Hutchinson. “This was a reminder to again say a quick prayer, and I had a confidence in Our Blessed Mother’s intercession.”
Some would say Hutchinson’s prayers, and those of the local community and beyond, haven’t gone unanswered. Since the fire started on July 3, only three homes have been destroyed and no one has been injured or killed.
The power of prayer
While millions of Americans were celebrating our country’s independence, Hutchinson was fighting alongside his crew and others to save homes and land from the Lake Christine Fire near Basalt.
Hutchinson is a firefighter and paramedic for the Basalt and Snowmass fire departments, as well as a paramedic for the Aspen Ambulance.
He and his wife, Lisa, are also parishioners at St. Mary of the Crown in Carbondale.
Hutchinson was initially assigned to provide 911 coverage for the Basalt Fire District, but he and his crew were reassigned to work on the fire between El Jebel and Basalt. Hutchinson served as the driver and operator of Engine 42, as well as the crew leader for the engine. They worked with two other engine crews to provide structure protection for the homes in the area.
The crew eventually repositioned to the top of the El Jebel trailer park to protect those homes after the wind changed and the fire was quickly moving in that direction.
“I was at the truck, ensuring the pump was operating properly and that the crew had the water they needed on the hose line,” said Hutchinson.
The fire’s conditions were unlike anything he had faced.
“With the high winds, erratic fire conditions and falling embers throughout the trailer park, I was very nervous,” he said. “In 19 years in the fire service, those were the most intense fire conditions that I have ever seen.”
Meanwhile, parishioners at St. Mary of the Crown and St. Vincent Catholic Church in Carbondale were also hard at work — opening their homes to those affected and praying for the safety of those in the fire’s path.
“They are understanding and living the gospel out,” said Father Rick Nakvasil, pastor of St. Mary and St. Vincent.
“Many people that are in that trailer park have a deep faith, even the ones that are not always at church — you can see it in them,” he said.
“I really have to give a lot of credit to Marian intercession,” he added. “I think there’s something beautiful when people call upon her, and she changes a lot of tides of danger.”
Light in the darkness
Father Nakvasil was out of town during part of the fire, but about an hour before it began to spread, he felt an “inkling” that caused him to act.
“I called six different convents and asked them to pray for Basalt,” he said.
He even called the Carmelites in Wichita, Kansas.
“The Sister that answered said, ‘Father, this is really good because we’re entering our holy hour, and we’re going to be praying our rosary, so we’re going to pray for Basalt.’”
Father Nakvasil believes the Sisters’ prayers have been a powerful force.
All the firefighters did an amazing job. Yet, against a fire like that, I feel that prayer from the community was greater than anything that we did.”
Father Jason Wallace, Vice Rector and Formator at St. John Vianney Seminary, was filling in for Father Nakvasil while he was away and witnessed the fire’s impact.
“The fire was immense and unpredictable,” he said. “It was as if the flames were towering over the trees, consuming everything in their path.”
But Father Wallace found light in the disaster’s darkness.
“It was a delight to watch how people pull together in times of crisis,” he said. “People were helping each other evacuate. Families were taking strangers in to give them a place to sleep.
“Some people stayed up all night in vigil at St. Mary of the Crown in Carbondale to pray.”
Hutchinson was encouraged when he found out about those acts of prayer.
“All the firefighters did an amazing job,” he said. “Yet, against a fire like that, I feel that prayer from the community was greater than anything that we did.”
Hutchinson believes it “is truly a miracle that no one was injured or killed during the rapid evacuation of the residents or during fire suppression efforts that night of the Fourth of July.
“The extreme fire behavior followed by sustained falling embers — easily 100 homes could have been destroyed by the fire. I believe that it is only by the grace of God and the intersession of our Blessed Mother Mary that we could save the homes we were assigned to protect,” he said.
Hutchinson’s heart goes out to the families whose homes were not saved and understands what they’re going through.
“Just before I joined the fire service in 1999, a fire destroyed the entire row of town homes where I lived,” he said. “Early that morning while the fire department was fighting the fire, all I could do was stand outside while my house burned up.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling — the initial sense of loss,” said Hutchinson. “In times of disaster, there is a strong temptation to blame God for what has happened.
“Yet, in times of crisis, I’ve also noticed a compassion from people throughout the community who want to help others in any way possible.
“I noticed this again [with] the Lake Christine Fire.”
Fire suppression efforts are still active on the Lake Christine Fire.