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Community Efforts Withstand Trial by Fire

Last month in this column I wrote about the theory of “collective efficacy”: the shared belief in a community’s collective ability to organize and take action for the common good. This month we put that theory into practice.

On the evening of Tuesday, July 3, the Lake Christine fire ignited in Basalt, and local fire departments, law enforcement, and emergency workers rallied instantly. A refugee shelter was quickly established at Basalt High School for those evacuated. Over the next day, the fire quickly spread, causing the evacuation of many more homes in the valley. A second refugee shelter was established in Roaring Fork High School late at night on July 4.

Over several days, as Basalt Mayor Jacque Whitsitt proclaimed, local and national “superheroes” fought heroically to staunch the flames, save structures, and protect human lives.

They are superHeroes, with a capital “H,” who risk personal injury, work around the clock, and go beyond the call of duty. They look and dress like superheroes, with their body armor, utility belts, weapons, and other gadgets. And they deserve our gratitude and praise, because without their heroic efforts, many more homes and maybe some lives would have been lost. One firefighter fought the fire even while his own house was burning. These superheroes did save the day.

At the same time, many small “h” superheroes rallied to the scene. First they came in organized waves under the banner of the Red Cross, county human services, and animal rescue. Then they came one-by-one in pickup-trucks and cars carrying supplies: ice and coolers, food, clothing, and toys.

That was the moment of true collective efficacy -- a community rallying spontaneously and selflessly for the common good.

Some heroes offered goods and resources. Local coffee shops dropped off urns of coffee. Bakeries brought doughnuts and pies. Pizza boxes flowed abundantly. Restaurants and grocers donated food.

Other heroes volunteered time and contributed skills. Teachers and childcare workers dropped in to lead games and activities with children. Interpreters provided help with translation. Medical and mental health providers offered their services.

Community organizations rallied heroically. The Lions Club served meals for days on end. Valley Settlement hit the streets to make sure everyone in the immigrant community had a place to stay.

Heroes who worked for the school district chipped in without being asked. Britni, the custodian at Roaring Fork High School, heard that the school was being used as a shelter on the 4th of July and came over just before midnight. She stayed up until three in the morning cleaning the showers, stocking the restrooms, and straightening up around the evacuees. She slept in the office in case anybody needed help during the night, got up the next morning, and started her shift cleaning the building. Britni was among the dozens of employees who showed up to work extra hours and contribute their time.  

Unlike in the movies, the victims didn’t just stand by while superheroes did their thing. I saw a volunteer named Joe setting up and cleaning up for three days at the evacuation shelter in Basalt. I asked him if he worked for the Red Cross. But no, he had been displaced by the fire, had a place to stay with friends in Glenwood Springs, and just wanted to help out.

Government services were vital in addressing this crisis. At the same time, the collective actions of the entire community led it to go as well as it did. The fact that there were over 500 homes evacuated but fewer than 200 people slept in shelters shows that the entire community opened its doors to its neighbors. As one of the veteran federal firefighters stated at a community briefing, “I’ve never seen the love and support like we’ve seen on this fire.”

The smoke from the fire will be with us for months to come. Families whose homes were lost or property damaged will take time to rebuild and restore. Let’s hope that the social bonds that tightened and held us together during the days of the fire will remain in place.

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