The East Troublesome fire caused widespread destruction as it swept across Grand County on Wednesday night and Thursday morning toward Grand Lake, entering an area packed with homes, lodges and other businesses.
The fire burned an additional 50,000 acres Thursday, bringing it to 170,000 acres and making it the second largest fire on record in Colorado.
But there was good news during a community briefing Thursday evening. Incident commander Noel Livingston said a cold front moving into the Front Range had drawn moisture from the plains, causing the part of the fire burning inside Rocky Mountain National Park “to fall down to the surface and check itself.”
“It is not moving toward Estes Park as it was earlier in the day,” he said.
Still, Livingston warned, the fire will likely continue to grow.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin, who called the fire the “worst of the worst,” said Thursday morning there was “lots of structure loss,” but didn’t have details on how many homes and businesses had burned. There were no injuries or deaths reported, but as of Thursday evening, he said there could be as many as five people unaccounted for.
“The fire got ahead of us, there is no doubt about it,” he said during a briefing midday Thursday. “We can’t control Mother Nature.”
MORE: For Friday’s updates on the East Troublesome fire, click here.
Schroetlin said he did not “want to put fear in the community,” but urged people to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice should the fire spread amid still-dangerous conditions. He has placed the town of Granby, Hot Sulphur Springs and Parshall on pre-evacuation notice.
“Pack those bags. Collect your belongings,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t want to leave their homes. I understand that. Please evacuate.”
Schroetlin said the fire, which has been burning since Oct. 14, grew at a rate of about 6,000 acres an hour on Wednesday night and acted more erratically than even worst-case scenarios suggested it could. By Thursday morning, it had torched an estimated 125,600 acres — growing sixfold over a matter of hours — and burned into Rocky Mountain National Park.
“We never, ever expected 6,000 acres per hour to come upon our community,” he said in an earlier video briefing.
The fire zipped through the northern edge of the C Lazy U Ranch along Colorado 125, destroying two homes, ranch owner Dean Singleton said Thursday.
The two homes were among about 25 family homes on the ranch, which had sold individual lots. The historic dude ranch near Granby also has luxury cabins for rent, plus 200 horses, which were evacuated Friday under pre-evacuation orders, said Singleton, former owner of The Denver Post. Most of the ranch’s employees were evacuated last weekend, ahead of mandatory evacuation orders that came Wednesday.
On Thursday morning, Singleton was awaiting news about the rest of the ranch and hoping that the fire had moved north without destroying any more of the property.
“Our employees are all OK,” he said. “The horses are all OK. We just don’t know about the buildings.”
Video shared on Twitter showed homes in the area being gobbled by flames.
As the fire continued moving east, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office midday Thursday ordered the evacuation of the western part of Rocky Mountain National Park as well as the town of Estes Park.
By 1:15 p.m. the fire had crossed the Continental Divide and was approaching Estes Park.
Greg Hanson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Boulder, said cool weather could save Estes Park, but “it’s going to be close.”
“I’m optimistic for them,” he said.
The extreme fire behavior Wednesday night left authorities scrambling to move people out of the fire’s path. But with limited routes out of the area, first responders had to get creative as they evacuated thousands of homes.
Some Grand County evacuees fleeing the fast-moving wall of flames Wednesday night were directed to make a smoky, nighttime drive east over Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park, a route that can be difficult to navigate in daylight. It appeared that sheriff’s deputies were using all lanes of traffic on U.S. 34 to evacuate people to the west.
Schroetlin said first responders “made some incredible rescues, some incredible evacuations.”
The sheriff said he was overwhelmed by the way the community came together to rescue residents and evacuate. His deputies, he said, worked to rescue four loggers who were surrounded by flames on a county road. “Our deputies were dying to get to them,” he said. “We were able to get in and get these people out. An incredible experience for our community. We saved lives.”
He added: “It was amazing to watch neighbors helping neighbors. Our community really stepped up.”
On Thursday, a massive area remained under mandatory evacuation orders. Rocky Mountain National Park was shut down because of active fire and hazardous air quality.
“Nobody really thought Grand Lake was going to be in danger”
People across Colorado were concerned about the historic Grand Lake Lodge and the mountain town’s main street full of shops and restaurants. Town Manager John Crone confirmed to Colorado Public Radio midday Thursday that the lodge and town survived, though he cautioned that conditions could change quickly.
Charity Baxter, the lodge’s general manager, told The Colorado Sun that it’s lucky that the lodge was closed for the season and sent its staff home. Baxter said she hoped the 100-year-old lodge is OK, but said the community’s safety is most important.
“What the Grand Lake Lodge is, is greater than the actual structures — it’s the memories and people that made it what it is, from the guests to staff to community,” Baxter said. “So with that spirit in mind, we would move forward.”
As a Grand County resident for 20 years, Baxter said she and her community are “in shock,” especially given how fast the fire moved.
“This is pretty new territory for me, in terms of something this impactful to the community,” Baxter said. “I’m hoping all our friends and neighbors got out safely. I know there were a lot of structures and homes that were lost, so hopefully we can pull together as a community and take care of those in need.”
Ernie Bjorkman, who has been on the Grand Lake Board of Trustees since April, said that while his household had bags packed for a few days prior to evacuating, it still came as a surprise when he received Wednesday night’s emergency alert.
“Nobody really thought Grand Lake was going to be in danger,” Bjorkman said.
Driving south on U.S. 34 to leave town, Bjorkman said it was “an eerie sight,” with first responders and firefighters standing guard at the top of the hill over town while thick, ashy smoke billowed. “It was not panic, but there was a lot of anticipation and anxiety to get out of town,” Bjorkman said. “You see this on the news all the time … but when you’re in the middle of it, it’s a scary scene.”
While Bjorkman thinks his house was spared, he knows friends who live across the road in the Columbine Lake neighborhood whose homes burned. As a retired journalist — most recently, working for Denver’s KWGN-TV — Bjorkman has experience reporting on tragedy, including natural disasters. He said he’s always felt for people he reports on, but “when it hits you personally, that makes it come to life all the much better.”
“You really appreciate then what other people have gone through,” Bjorkman said.
“We are going to have to pull together”
Grand County Commissioner Kristen Manguso said the county would distribute information later Thursday on how folks could pitch in to help firefighters and residents who have lost their homes.
“We are going to have to eventually move forward from this,” she said in an emotional briefing. “This is a great tragedy. We are going to have to pull together like we always do in Grand County. We are going to heal from this. We are going to help people get over this.”
The East Troublesome fire began on Oct. 14 near Kremmling and had burned about 20,000 acres before its dramatic tear east on Wednesday. Its cause remains under investigation, but authorities preliminarily believe that it was started by a person or people and not naturally.
The fire is now the fourth largest recorded in Colorado history.
Even before the fire made its 20-mile run toward Grand Lake, the blaze was highly active on Wednesday, burning across Colorado 125 and an area of that includes multimillion-dollar homes and ranches, including the C Lazy U.
“The fire is growing faster than we can catch it right now,” Incident Commander Jake Winfield warned in a video briefing held Wednesday evening, just before the fire’s harrowing run.
Fire danger remained high on Thursday, which drove the blaze’s signficant growth.
A Type 1 incident management team took over command of the East Troublesome fire on Thursday morning, replacing Winfield’s crew. That had been planned before the fire grew.
Livingston, the latest incident commander, said his priority will be keeping people safe and ensuring evacuations are run smoothly. Structure protection is also a primary goal.
Livingston said there’s still plenty of available fuel for the fire to spread in.
By Thursday, the fire had moved past the community of Grand Lake and into Rocky Mountain National Park. The fire reached tree line in the park, and officials were trying to determine whether it had crossed over the top of mountains and into the other side of RMNP.
Livingston warned there’s potential for the East Troublesome fire to merge with the Cameron Peak fire burning 10 to 12 miles away in Larimer County. He said an abundance of fuels could carry it to the valley floor “so there is potential that those fires could merge.”
By Thursday evening, Livingston said he was encouraged to report the fire had calmed inside Rocky Mountain National Park, but there remains the possibility that the two largest fires in Colorado could merge.
“This year has been one of those years when low-potential events seem to be happening with high frequency,” Livingston said.
Gov. Jared Polis earlier in the day authorized the Colorado National Guard to respond to the fire and Livingston said guard aerial and ground resources have been requested.
A summer and fall of destructive fires
The East Troublesome fire is threatening to become the most destructive fire in an already difficult summer and fall of wildfires in Colorado.
This past weekend thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in Boulder County after the fast-moving Cal-Wood fire broke out near Jamestown, eventually destroying at least 20 homes along U.S. 36 south of Lyons.
The Cameron Peak fire west of Fort Collins, which last week became the largest fire in Colorado’s recorded history and has been burning for more than two months, continues to rage. It has torched dozens of structures and more than 200,000 acres.
The Williams Fork fire is also still burning in Grand County west of Winter Park after starting on Aug 14. It has burned nearly 15,000 acres and is 26% contained.
Firefighting resources are spread thin, which prompted the U.S. Forest Service on Wednesday to close the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests in Grand, Clear Creek, Jefferson, Gilpin, Boulder and Larimer counties for fear of another fire starting. The Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, shut down its land in Boulder and Larimer counties.
A dry and hot summer driven by a changing climate has been blamed for the conditions that led to Colorado’s months of destructive wildfire. People across the state have been dealing with smoke and flames for months.
A reprieve in the form of a significant snowstorm is expected to move into Colorado over the weekend. However firefighters are still bracing for several more weeks battling flames in the state.