GRAND LAKE, Colo. — Seven months after a historic wildfire burned through Grand County, narrowly missing downtown Grand Lake but destroying many homes on its outskirts, the healing town is eager for tourism this summer.
The small mountain community is nestled on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park and boasts the largest natural lake in the state. For the outdoorsy types in Colorado, it’s paradise.
But in late October 2020, the East Troublesome Fire turned the quaint town into a hellish disaster. Within 36 hours, the fire grew from about 19,000 acres to 170,000, threatening the entire community. Evacuations were ordered around the county, forcing more than 35,000 people to flee with grab bags and the hope they’d have a home to come back to.
The fire — which grew to the second-largest in recorded state history at 193,812 acres — destroyed 580 structures, 366 of which were residential, and killed an elderly couple.
As the initial shock of the devastation started to fade, the community quickly got to work getting back on its feet, spurred by the county motto, “We are Grand.”
That adage actually means something, said Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron.
“We're excited to get back going,” he said. “But everybody here is a family. We come together, we look together. And we help each other out that way.”
In an effort to encapsulate the fire’s devastation and the trauma many residents continue to experience, the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce created Troublesome Stores: Art & Artifacts From The East Troublesome Fire, an exhibit that combines personal stories, treasured artifacts, and photographs from the wildfire. It opened to the public on June 29.
Emily Hagen, the executive director of the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, is heading the project. She started spreading word about the display in May.
She explained that while local businesses are excited to welcome guests back to Grand Lake, many people are still grieving the loss of their former lives. Hagen said she started to brainstorm how she could help alleviate that weight while still educating visitors who are curious about East Troublesome.
“I don't want visitors driving through neighborhoods,” she said. “You know, I think that oftentimes they see it as harmless, but it can actually be quite hurtful to have cars driving by, stopping, taking pictures while they're cleaning up their properties. That causes a lot more pain than I think people understand. And so I want them to know that they can come to the exhibit. … They can drive through the national park or other public roads and still see impacts of the fire in the burn scar without driving through residential neighborhoods.”
Along with a partnership of Thomas Cooper of Lightbox Photo, whose photos will be displayed, the Troublesome Stories exhibit will open this summer at the Pitkin Building, located at Grand Avenue and Pitkin Street.
As visitors begin to return to Grand Lake, residents across town are still working to pick up the pieces.
Donnie and Jodie Kern, who live near Columbine Lake, vividly remember watching the fire’s orange glow light up their neighborhood through the dark smoke as it approached their home on the afternoon of Oct. 21, 2020. They fled as the fire burned into their yard, speeding away, unable to see past the car hood, Donnie remembered.
“There was no stopping that fire,” he said. “If you were in the path of it, your house burned to the ground.”
Kami Gilmour and her husband rushed to gather what they could from their 50-year-old Sun Valley Lake log cabin, a little over a mile and a half north of the Kerns as the crow flies, into their pickup as ashes rained down from the fire, which was roaring in from the hillsides across the lake.
“The sheriff and the firefighters came into this neighborhood just pounding on doors when they saw cars, screaming to get out,” she said.
They fled north into Rocky Mountain National Park — the opposite direction of where most evacuees went — to escape the quickly encroaching fire, which was burning homes and scattering trees across roads in the neighborhood about 30 minutes after they were gone.
“If we’d run off the road, or hit an animal, or a tree hit our vehicle and we were stranded, we would have died,” she said.
Both the Gilmours and Kerns returned to piles of ash and twisted, scorched metal.
Today, they, along with many others in the community, have started the process of rebuilding. Both have decided to rebuild on their lots — neither could imagine leaving Grand Lake.
“This is still home,” Donnie said as he looked around his burned lot in May. “We just couldn't turn around and be like, ‘Ah, we're out.’”
The support from the community only reinforced that notion.
“We’re actually more rooted here than ever, and we don’t have a house,” Gilmour said, standing in what is now just a dirt lot with a dumpster out front and a dock out back. “…There’s just a bond that’s happened with people, of lifting each other up, that was always here. But now, it’s cemented forever.”
Grand Lake has also received help from the federal, state and county governments.
Grand County and Larimer County had disaster declarations approved by former President Donald Trump in January — but only for public assistance, not individual assistance, meaning people there could not apply for financial or direct help themselves.
Grand County, in lieu of individual assistance from FEMA, was approved for a Small Business Administration loan assistance program of up to $200,000.
The county and Northern Water have received grant money from the Colorado Water Conservation Board to work on watershed restoration, and the county has been approved for several million dollars in Emergency Watershed Protection federal funds but has only received only about half of it so far. Still, water protection projects, re-seeding hillsides, and sandbagging projects have all gotten underway this spring.
The state legislature passed bills signed by the governor which put tens of millions of dollars, including some received from the stimulus package, toward wildfire prevention, mitigation and recovery programs in the wake of the historic 2020 wildfire season, but county officials do not believe whatever amount allocated toward the East Troublesome Fire will cover the full costs of recovery.
But the Grand Foundation’s Grand County Wildfire Emergency Fund has been key in helping fill in the gaps. The fund has raised nearly $4 million and awarded nearly $1 million to help residents in the recovery process. Denver7 Gives has contributed a portion of the funding.
While no wildfires are currently burning in Grand County, the Muddy Slide Fire west of Kremmling in Routt County has quickly burned through several thousand acres already this week, and the Grand Lake community is all too aware of the hot and dry start to the summer and the consequences it could have.
“Everybody's staying as positive as they can about a future fire outlook,” Kudron said. “But there's a lot of realism. Because a lot of people have said goodbye once. Nobody wants to do it twice.”
A combination of climate change, drought, beetle-killed forests and a human-caused fire made the conditions around Grand Lake ripe for what the area experienced last October.
Grand County’s annual temperature increased 1.3 degrees Celsius between 1895 and 2018, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — above the national average of 1 degree. But the county is also surrounded by areas to the north and west that have topped the 2-degree mark.
This time last year, Grand County was entirely drought-free. But by the time the East Troublesome Fire made its massive run on Oct. 21 and 22, the areas to the southwest of Grand Lake were seeing exceptional drought, the most severe on the U.S. Drought Monitor’s scale, and Grand Lake itself was in extreme drought conditions.
This year, Grand County ranges from abnormally dry on the far eastern edges, to moderate drought in the Grand Lake and Granby areas. But the farther west one goes in the county, the worse the drought gets. Once you’ve reached Kremmling, you’re into exceptional drought territory.
The forest and land management in the county is also somewhat unique, as about 64% of the land in Grand County is owned by the federal government; 4.3% is state land; 2% is owned by water boards and the county; and about 29% is private.
That means all the various federal, state and other agencies are tasked with their own management directives, resources and budgets — something people in the Grand Lake area say contributed to the state of the land that burned so quickly in late October.
“I think there’s a lot to be learned about forest management,” said Gilmour. “We had so much standing dead timber.”
Colorado wildfire officials are now treating what used to be the “fire season” as a year-round event because of climate change, officials with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control (DFPC) said this spring.
The East Troublesome Fire started in October — typically late in the fire season — and was not fully contained until the last day of November.
“Going into 2020, the second-largest fire in Colorado’s history was about 108,000 acres. So you see that size of a fire happen in one day in October, and you go, ‘Wow,’” said Mike Morgan, the director of the DFPC, in an interview in March. “It’s very early, obviously, to predict what it’s going to look like, but when you watch the trends and you see the forest health issues and the ongoing drought conditions, it’s not getting better. The risk is not reducing out there.”
The DFPC in April released its annual fire outlook, saying conditions were similar to where they were in early 2020 and predicting another year of intense wildfires, particularly on the Western Slope.
Already this month, there have been more than a dozen wildfires from the Front Range to the Western Slope, and multiple fires have grown by thousands of acres per day this week.
“When you look at what the climatologists are predicting in the United States, we burn around, on what we call a bad year, about 10 million acres. And by 2050, we’re looking at that doubling,” said DFPC Wildland Fire Section Chief Vaughn Jones. “Within Colorado, we’re looking at maybe a five-fold increase in the number of acres burned.”
Residents in Colorado’s mountain communities and the state’s officials are well-versed with balancing the vast recreation opportunities Colorado has to offer with fire safety and prevention in the outdoors, and believe that they will have to continue to keep close watch on how to juggle those as the fire season expands into a fire year.
Grand Lake is a haven for those who love exploring Colorado’s outdoors — so much so that it’s nicknamed the “Soul of the Rockies.”
“Grand Lake in the summer is like grown-up summer camp. It's so fun, with so much to do,” Hagen said.
From hiking, fishing and kayaking in the summer, to skiing, snowmobiling, and snowshoeing in the winter, there’s a wide range of activities available for people of all skill levels. Rocky Mountain National Park’s western entrance opens up to Grand Lake just north of town. The community’s sandy beach, charming downtown along a historic boardwalk and the Rocky Mountain Repertory Theater provide places to land and relax after busy days outside.
Almost all the trails in the Grand Lake area have reopened following the fire. Hagen said dozens upon dozens of trails are currently open to the public, including visitor favorites like East Inlet Trail, Adams Falls Trail and Shadow Mountain Trail. Wildlife, including many moose, call these areas home and are active as new vegetation begins to grow. The community’s Facebook and Instagram pages often highlight the creatures that live there.
Grand County may have fire restrictions throughout the summer, meaning open fires are prohibited. Stage 1 fire restrictions are already in effect across most of the western half of Colorado, and Stage 2 restrictions will go into effect Friday in the White River National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management Colorado River Valley Field Office. But fire restrictions don't mean people shouldn't visit, locals say.
“Grand Lake turns into just a great place for people and friends to come and gather,” Mayor Kudron said.
He said he wants visitors to be patient when they visit this summer, as many small businesses are open seven days a week amid a labor shortage but will “welcome you with a big smile and serve you great food.”
But those visitors to town should also not be overly intrusive and should tread lightly when bringing up the fire with locals, said Grand Lake residents, including Grace Latz.
“Most everything is open, but also, just keep in mind that somebody you may be talking to casually may have lost their house,” said Latz. “Curiosity and learning about fire prevention is really good, and understanding and seeing the impact on the landscape, I think, is really powerful. But, just be mindful and show some empathy to people who are here because it did affect a lot of people.”
“There’s the misconception that the town is gone,” she added. “But the town’s very much still here.”