Fighting fire with faith

Faith community rallies to pray, offer shelter during Lake Christine Fire in Basalt

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.

This photo, taken by Mark Hutchinson, shows the Lake Christine Fire burning behind a trailer park in El Jebel. (Photo provided)

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.

COMING UP: Team Samaritan cyclist goes ‘Everesting’ for the homeless and hungry

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When it comes to the daily sufferings of those who are homeless, there’s nothing like a 29,029-foot bike ride to keep things in perspective.

That’s exactly what Corbin Clement will be doing this Saturday, June 19, with a couple of his riding buddies as they attempt an “Everesting” ride to raise money for the Samaritan House homeless shelter in Denver. Starting at Witter Gulch Road in Evergreen, the three riders will climb Squaw Pass Road to a point in Clear Creek County and ride back down the hill for over eight laps, which amounts to roughly 190 miles in distance and the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing – hence the name “Everesting.” Their goal is to complete the feat in 20 hours or less.

Oh, and they can’t sleep. It is, indeed, just as crazy as it sounds. Those who aren’t avid cyclists might be wondering, “How in the world do you train for something like this?” 
 
“For training, it’s been just more or less ride as much as possible,” Clement told the Denver Catholic. “The training is structured around endurance, and that’s of course what Everesting is. It’s just a lot of peddling. So, a lot of my training so far has just been trying to ride as much as possible and ride longer high elevation rides.” 

In March, an Irish cyclist set the world record for Everesting when he completed the feat in six hours and 40 minutes. Clement isn’t trying to set a record, but regardless, it’s quite a feat to undertake, even for a seasoned athlete like him, whose pedigree includes snowboarding and rock climbing. 

“Our ride will be the same thing, but it’ll be pretty different,” Clement said. “We don’t have any sort of special bikes or super focused diet or a really regimented plan or a crew that’s very well-instructed on how we’re going to tackle this. I’ve read a couple of things to just kind of make it into a party — have friends come out to support you, get people to join you on certain laps…that’s kind of the approach we’re taking.” 

Clement has already raised $5,200 for Samaritan House, with a current goal of $8,000. This is Clement’s first year riding for Team Samaritan, but his dad, Kevin, has ridden for the team for several years. When his dad offered to give him an extra kit and uniform, Clement accepted, but didn’t want to take it without doing something help the cause. He could’ve simply opted for a nice ride in the countryside, but he chose to do something a bit more challenging.  

Corbin Clement used to experience the challenges that homeless people face on a daily basis when commuting through downtown Denver to work on his bike. This Saturday, he will raise money for Samaritan House homeless shelter by “Everesting,” a 190-mile bike ride that is the equivalent of the elevation of Mt. Everest in terms of vertical climbing. (Photo provided)

“For some reason, the Everesting idea popped into my head,” he explained. “I think it’s one of those things that has a little bit of shock value for people who hear about it. It’s certainly something that’s gained more popularity and visibility in the last couple of years with endurance athletes. I wanted to choose something that would actually be a challenge for myself and something that I’d have to work towards.” 

Clement currently resides in Utah, but he used to live in Denver and commute by bike to work every day. During those rides to his office, which was located near Samaritan House, he would pass many homeless people and have conversations with them. This experience was also a motivating factor for his Everesting attempt for Team Samaritan. 

“It’s very different when you’re on a bike versus in a car because you’re right there,” Clement said. “If you stop at a stoplight and a homeless person is on the corner, whether or not they’re panhandling or something like that, you hear the conversations, or you’ll have a conversation with them. There are things you smell or you hear or you see that you just never would if you were in a car. So, it kind of made sense, too, with the biking aspect. It’s part of my community that I’ve lived and worked in for a very long time.” 

Clement’s Everesting attempt is one event in a series of endurance event’s he’s doing over the summer that culminates with the Leadville 100, a single-day mountain bike race across the Colorado Rockies. In that race, he will be riding to support young adults diagnosed with cancer by raising funds for First Descents.  

Both causes are near to Clement’s heart, and he said that while his Everesting attempt will be a form of “suffering,” it pales in comparison to what the homeless face day in and day out. This is ultimately why he’s riding and raising funds for Team Samaritan. 

“Any time we see a homeless person or people who have to live on the streets,” Clement said, “That is true suffering — true endurance — with no end in sight.” 

To learn more about Corbin’s fundraising efforts or to donate, click here.