The East Troublesome fire was coming.
Will O’Donnell couldn’t see the raging inferno from his home a few miles south of Grand Lake, but he could hear it — like a “jet-engine roar.”
At first, O’Donnell thought maybe the sound was a firefighting plane as he loaded up his vehicle. But when the noise didn’t abate — “it was just a persistent rumble” — he knew. He knew the fire was just over the hillside.
There was smoke. There was ash. There was a call from his buddy on Wednesday night warning that flames were not far away.
“Mother Nature,” he said, “she was having a field day and we all had to get out of the way.”
When the East Troublesome fire made its 20-mile, 105,000-acre run across Grand County on Wednesday night, people living in thousands of homes in its path had only minutes to flee. While they knew there was a threat, the fire had been burning for a week and it didn’t appear to be an imminent danger.
In the worst-case scenario, they thought they’d have hours to get out on U.S. 34, the only way in and out of the area around Grand Lake. Instead, some had as little as 10 minutes.
A few hours before the fire’s epic run, officials seemed concerned, but calm during a video briefing. It had already been a bad day for firefighters. The wildfire had jumped Colorado 125. But no one quite realized it was about to get far worse.
O’Donnell was one of those who watched the briefing and thought he had plenty of time to get out if the fire seemed to be nearing his doorstep. Then, suddenly, it was knocking.
“The winds just blew it cross-country in an hour and threatened everybody,” he said.
O’Donnell fled over Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. After he traversed the winding, high-altitude route, the fire made it impassable. Friends who left later than he did dodged flaming debris.
Officials have marveled at how quickly the fire moved, calling it unprecedented and worse than they could have ever imagined.
“An amazing, really, amount of fire spread,” is how Incident Commander Noel Livingston put it.
Dan Canup, who lives in a condominium in the Soda Springs area southwest of Grand Lake, watched as smoke rose over his community like a volcanic plume on Wednesday evening. He knew it had crossed Colorado 125 but reasoned that it would take time for flames to make their way as far northeast as his home along U.S. 34.
He started to put some stuff in his car, just in case. After all, he was under a pre-evacuation order. Then, a visitor appeared. Canup noticed there was an orange-red glow behind him.
“A police officer came up my driveway and said ‘You’ve got 10 minutes,’” Canup said. “By the time I left, flames were over the ridge and heading down toward my place. On the way out, you could just see homes up in Trail Creek going up one by one.”
Canup evacuated to Granby, which is currently under a pre-evacuation status. He’s now kicking himself for the things he chose to take and the things he left behind.
He grabbed the Bluetooth speaker, but left his safe full of important documents, for instance.
“Now I get it,” he said. “Now I understand when you literally have 10,15, 20 minutes, it’s hard to concentrate. It’s hard to figure out what’s important, what’s not important.”
Canup, like many others, is waiting for official word on the status of his home. A friend drove by and said the building housing his condo is still intact. But the fire is still raging and threatening structures, even in areas it has already passed through.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” Canup said Thursday.
Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said it has been tough to gather information about which homes survived and which didn’t. The fire is still too active to send assessment teams into the burn area. He’s not sure when he will be able to let people know what happened to their property.
“Fire is close to houses. Fire is close to our roadways,” Schroetlin said. “Things change every pass through that I do.”
As of Friday afternoon, the fire had burned more than 188,000 acres. The only information homeowners have to go on is Schroetlin’s comment Thursday that there was “lots of structure loss.”
Many of the buildings in the area that the East Troublesome fire burned through are vacation homes and cabins that were vacant when the blaze came roaring past. Their owners, too, are anxiously awaiting word on whether they survived.
Cole Finegan said he was heartsick as he watched the fire unfold from Denver on Wednesday. His family has had a place at Columbine Lake, just north of Grand Lake, for more than two decades.
“We are not optimistic,” he said in an email to The Sun.
O’Donnell, who fled over Trail Ridge Road, is waiting for official word about his home, too. He’s lived there his whole life — 55 years.
O’Donnell has been using a satellite application that shows heat signatures to figure out if his house is still standing. He said it appears flames came within 500 feet or so, which gives him hope.
“Hopefully the margin of error isn’t more than 100 or 200 feet,” he said.