Note: Watch this story on Denver7 at 10 p.m. Thursday.
GRAND LAKE, Colo. — It’s been said a picture is worth a thousand words. A new exhibit in Grand Lake may say even more.
“There really are no words,” said Thomas Cooper, owner of Lightbox Images. “You can say, ‘I’m sorry’ a million times. They didn’t lose their lives, but they’ve lost everything. Everything they owned.”
As a Colorado native, Cooper has a had a long-standing love affair with mother nature’s fury in the Centennial state.
“I photographed the High Meadows Fire, the Snaking Fire, the Black Forest Fire, the Hayman Fire — which was one of the bigger ones that I ended up covering,” Cooper said.
And now, one year after the costliest wildfire in Colorado history tore through Grand County, Cooper’s photos of the East Troublesome Fire and the aftermath have generated an enormous response at a tiny gallery in downtown Grand Lake.
The East Troublesome Fire narrowly missed downtown Grand Lake but destroyed many homes on its outskirts.
“We just had our 14,000th visitor,” said Grand Lake Chamber president Emily Hagen.
In an effort to encapsulate the fire’s devastation and the trauma many residents continue to experience, Hagen created Troublesome Stories: Art & Artifacts From The East Troublesome Fire, an exhibit that combines personal stories, treasured artifacts, and Coopers photographs from the wildfire. It opened to the public on June 29.
“I think the crowds have been amazing,” Hagen said. “And Thomas’ photos are certainly a huge driver of that.”
“I’ve been a storm chaser in Colorado since I was old enough to drive,” Cooper said.
Last fall, Cooper was on his way to photograph the Cameron Peak fire in Larimer County when the CalWood Fire blew up. Then he heard about East Troublesome's growth.
“Then I hear on the radio that the Troublesome Fire is growing and getting bigger and getting bigger and bigger and bigger," he said.
Cooper dropped everything and rushed to Grand County.
“The story is — I got in here early,” Cooper said. “I wear the gear. I keep everything with me. I have my fire shelter current.”
What he was able to document that night and the weeks following is breathtaking.
“The heat met the cool and just had some extreme fire behaviors,” Cooper said. “To see these kinds of winds, causing multiple fire tornadoes like this, is just insane. This was basically, to put it in a better word, a giant hillside of flash paper just ready to go up.”
His photos were so captivating to Hagen that she decided to build an exhibit.
“And I said, ‘Go for it,’” Cooper said. “You pick what you want.’”
What Hagen built is a stunning tribute to the victims of the fire, including artifacts from homes lost in the fire.
“We had to bring in a box of Kleenex,” Cooper said. “I did not know it was going to affect people this way. The 14,000 visitors just blows my mind.”
“We were hoping 50 a day,” said a greeter at the exhibit. “Complete strangers embrace you. They share with your sorrow.”
“This isn’t over with, for them,” Cooper said. “They’re still rebuilding. They’re dealing with insurance companies. They’re dealing with the hillsides completely black and barren. This is just a moment in time.”
It's a moment in time captured through the lens of a Colorado photographer who can empathize.
“This is the most in-depth coverage I’ve ever done on a fire,” Cooper said.
That coverage speaks to all Coloradans, not through words, but pictures.
“I want to tell a story through this,” Cooper said. “These stories are important.”