Grand Lake Fire Marshal Dan Mayer was horrified.
In a matter of minutes, the East Troublesome fire had transformed his community into an unrecognizable hellscape. Homes were burning all around him. Hundreds of spot fires threatened more structures. Embers and smoke were blowing by in what seemed like hurricane-force winds.
The fire was so intense that Mayer was forced to flee along with scores of civilians and other first responders as the inferno — perhaps the fastest-moving in Colorado history — made its initial pass through the high-altitude vacation community of Grand Lake.
When he returned to the burn zone about an hour later, he got a chilling call over his emergency radio: an elderly couple who had told family members they were going to ride out the firestorm in their basement could no longer be reached.
Mayer turned his pickup truck onto U.S. 34 and tried to reach the couple’s home near Rocky Mountain National Park. He was met by a wall of flames and could barely see the hood of his vehicle.
“That is the most petrified I’ve been in my life,” he said. “I couldn’t even see where I was going. If I would have gotten down there I would have gotten killed.”
The Colorado Sun interviewed about a dozen firefighters, first responders and evacuees to piece together a timeline of the East Troublesome fire’s terrifying run on Oct. 21, the day it became one of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, burning more than 100,000 acres in a matter of hours and consuming more than 300 homes.
Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, the couple Mayer tried to rescue, died in the fire. Their bodies were found two days later in what little was left of their home.
The accounts provided to The Sun reveal just how dire the situation became within a short span, and just how narrowly many people and homes escaped death and destruction. Within two hours, the East Troublesome blaze had turned from a docile foe into an unstoppable force, prompting evacuations over an area so large that authorities thought it would take hours to get everyone out. They had about 90 minutes.
A mix of paid and volunteer firefighters from a few small Grand County departments were on their own to try to save their community. Some of their own homes were destroyed in the flames.
Todd Holzwarth, chief of the East Grand Fire Protection District in Winter Park, Fraser and Tabernash, said firefighters took a major risk. “I told my guys, ‘You have engaged a fire that, under most circumstances, what everybody does is back off, get into safe areas and get their cameras out,’” Holzwarth said.
Before Oct. 21, the East Troublesome fire had mostly been a nuisance, burning through dense trees and steadily gobbling up terrain as it made its way northeast from Kremmling toward homes and ranches and businesses.
But it plodded along slowly enough that no one really worried, even when a week after it ignited the fire started to pick up steam as it approached Colorado 125 north of Granby, a highway dotted with high-dollar properties. If the fire jumped the road to the east, structures — like the buildings at the historic C Lazy U guest ranch and resort — would be at risk.
Yes, there was a big plume of smoke hanging over Grand County. Yes, fuels were dry and winds were strong. Yes, the weather outlook wasn’t very good.
However, experience told firefighters that in the worst-case scenario they had days to get people out of its way. And the people in its way thought they had plenty of time, too. They watched daily briefings about the fire’s progress and were reassured.
“It didn’t seem like it was making too much headway,” said Dan Canup, who lives in the Soda Springs subdivision.
Between about 3:30 and 4 p.m. on Oct. 21, with the fire still on the west side of Colorado 125, a crew of volunteer firefighters from Hot Sulphur Springs decided that things were calm enough to go home for the night after checking sprinkler systems installed around buildings as a last-ditch insurance policy.
“Everything seemed to calm down so they were all coming down off the hill,” said Tom Baumgarten, chief of the Hot Sulphur Springs Parshall Fire Protection District. “We had thought it was fairly stable.”
But almost as soon as the crew made its way off of the fire line, things changed.
“The fire went crazy,” Baumgarten said.
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It’s not totally clear what happened, but firefighters now believe the smoke column that was building over the fire all day suddenly collapsed, sending a rush of air downwards and shooting flames out in every direction toward fuels that were tinder-dry after a summer of climate-change-driven drought.
Baumgarten said the firestorm reminded him of a weather event in Grand County a few years ago that sent damaging microbursts from Kremmling to Grand Lake.
“The way this happened was extremely similar,” he said. “Instead of just wind and rain, it had fire below it.”
The East Troublesome fire was now on both sides of Colorado 125 and advancing quickly to the northeast. The sprinkler systems the Hot Sulphur Springs Parshall Fire Protection District crews were checking on minutes earlier were no match for the flame’s intensity. There was no stopping the fire now.
About that time, Hopper Becker was arriving home from his eight-hour shift as Granby’s wastewater superintendent. He’s also a volunteer at the Grand Fire Protection District.
Becker, a captain at the fire department, climbed onto the roof of his home to get a better look at the worsening blaze. What he saw was frightening: a fast-moving, flaming front headed in the worst possible direction. He called up his fire chief, Brad White.
“This is looking pretty spicy from my vantage point,” Becker told him.
White was already aware of the growing danger, and told Becker that he was dispatching every available Grand Fire Protection District crew into the Trail Creek Estates subdivision between Colorado 125 and Grand Lake, directly in the fire’s path.
The first fire engines arrived in the Trail Creek Estates neighborhood between 5:30 and 6 p.m. Crews quickly realized there was little they could do. The fire was moving too fast and was too intense for them to actually battle it.
“By the time our engines got to the area, they couldn’t get in,” White said, calling the fire behavior “pretty chaotic.”
Sagebrush in the subdivision was burning so intensely that the shrubs put off 10-to-15-foot flames. The fire was also racing through the crowns of lodgepole pine.
“In some areas the fire seemed to be at ground level,” White said. “In other areas it was in the canopy and throwing off a lot of heat.”
The operation quickly moved from structure protection to evacuation. Crew gave up on using their fire engines to battle the flames and instead started using them to get people out of the fire’s path.
“Both fire engines and law enforcement officers were being pushed out of nearly every subdivision they were trying to evacuate just because the fire was coming in that hot,” White said.
White says his mind turned to wildfires in California in recent years that destroyed entire towns, killing people in their path.
Becker remembers thinking: “There’s going to be so much death.”
Just after 6:30 p.m., emergency radios in Grand County erupted in a series of ominous tones. Strung together, they sounded like the score of a horror movie.
The eerie sequence preceded Grand Fire Protection District’s plea for all available fire units in the county to rush to Trail Creek Estates.
“East Grand Fire Department, Granby Fire Department, Grand Lake Fire Department, Kremmling Fire Department, Hot Sulphur Springs Fire Department: Granby Fire Department is requesting mutual aid to the Trail Creek area in Granby for structure protection,” a dispatcher called out after the tones.
The call for help startled firefighters in other parts of the county who had been watching the smoke column grow over Granby and Grand Lake all day.
“We do it once a week when we do our (countywide) pager test,” said Holzwarth, the East Grand Fire Protection District chief. “If it’s not Wednesday morning about 8 o’clock and they are hitting all the tones, that’s usually not a good sign.”
By that point, the towering cloud of debris had reached the cruising altitude of a commercial airplane and was visible from the Front Range, frightening people in Boulder who had narrowly escaped the brunt of a fast-moving wildfire a few days earlier.
It was already too late to stop the flames and so as the other crews arrived, they were sent door-to-door, evacuating thousands of homes in the fire’s path.
Authorities had started drafting evacuation plans between Granby and Grand Lake as a precaution in the days leading up to Oct. 21. They envisioned this happening in waves across about a dozen zones.
The assumption was that the fastest they could clear everyone out of the way of the East Troublesome fire was about six to eight hours, given that U.S. 34 is really the only way in and out of the area. The blaze, at that point, was moving at a rate of about 6,000 acres — or 9.375 square miles — per hour. This meant the evacuation needed to happen in minutes.
Capt. Becker, with Granby Fire Protection District, was among those tasked with helping evacuate residents. People wanted to know how much time they had to flee.
“We just told everybody: ‘Get out now. Leave immediately,’” he said.
The sky had turned red. The wind was whipping around smoke and embers. Transformers were exploding, lighting up the sky with bright, terrifying flashes.
Vicky Winterscheidt and her husband found themselves in the fire’s path at their second home on County Road 4955 near the Grand Lake Golf Course. She was trying to attach signs to her neighbors’ homes to let first responders know they either weren’t home or had already evacuated. But intense smoke made it impossible for her to read the house numbers.
“At that point, you could hear the fire coming,” she said. “It sounded like a train or a jet or something. We couldn’t see the fire at that point, but you could hear it. You could hear the snapping and the roar. I said, ‘You know, we got to get out of here.’”
Winterscheidt and her husband started up a hill out of their neighborhood when he noticed the lights were still on in their neighbor’s house and decided to make sure they weren’t inside.
The neighbors were watching TV, completely unaware of the danger that was just a few minutes away.
“He ran in and basically said, ‘Get the hell out of here now!’” Winterscheidt said.
Other evacuees who spoke to The Sun described similar experiences. One man said a sheriff’s deputy told him he had 10 minutes to flee. He left with flames approaching his condominium building. Another, Will O’Donnell, escaped over Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park to the east, a route that’s frequently closed this time of year because of snow, unsure if he was going to encounter impassable flames from the nearby Cameron Peak fire burning west of Fort Collins on the way out.
“I was pretty skeptical about my decision for probably the first five or seven miles of that drive,” O’Donnell said.
Emergency radio traffic was harrowing: People were calling authorities saying they couldn’t evacuate because of fallen debris. Several loggers reported they were trapped behind flames and that their vehicle was on fire.
First responders worried that their comrades weren’t going to be able to get out in time.
“Alright, guys, just remember: Risk a life to save a life,” someone called over the radio to a group of first responders who were heading into a flaming area to rescue people. “If you can’t get in there, don’t get in there.”
Some units barely made it out.
“You need to emergency evacuate out of your area and come out immediately,” a first responder called out to a colleague. “The winds are probably 30 to 40 miles an hour. The fire is across both sides of (County Road) 41. If you have to drive through the fire, drive through the fire.”
Firefighters and law enforcement eventually made the decision that they had to leave the area as well.
Crews rendezvoused at Stillwater Community Chapel on U.S. 34 southwest of Grand Lake — far enough from the firestorm and close enough to Lake Granby to feel safe.
Because the fire had moved so quickly, the local fire departments were essentially on their own. There hadn’t been enough time for crews from surrounding counties to make their way to the burn zone. The massive expansion of the blaze had also happened at the exact moment two federal incident management teams were swapping control of the fire.
First responders at the church estimated it was about an hour before they felt the flaming front had subsided enough that they could return to the burn area and try to salvage what structures were left standing. Firefighters feared they wouldn’t find anything but charred rubble in and around Grand Lake. By then, it was roughly 10 p.m.
The first crews to return to the burn area were happy to find the heart of Grand Lake undamaged, though parts of it were being threatened by spot fires. Areas to the north and west, however, had been devastated.
“It sucked worse than anything you could have imagined,” said Mayer, the Grand Lake Fire Protection District fire marshal.
Keith Everhart, public works director for the town of Grand Lake, found the aftermath hard to describe. He drove a front-end loader to clear debris from roadways so that firefighters could get through.
“The best way to phrase it would be a war zone that was on fire,” he said. “That would be about the only way I could describe it. Just a war zone.”
Photos from behind the fire lines that night reveal just how awful the scene was. Flaming piles of debris illuminating the bones of houses that had been destroyed. Torched trees leaning in odd directions. Flames burning so hot they appeared blue.
Local firefighters organized into a handful of strike teams so they could split up and start working to protect homes. Firefighters who spoke to The Sun said they were hanging hoses off the backs of their trucks so they could react more quickly when they arrived at each property.
“There were times you had this feeling of we’re just kind of up here by ourselves,” Mayer said.
“I know my guys directly … can account for probably 20 homes we saved.”
Resources were limited, though, so crews sometimes were forced to make difficult decisions about which homes to save and which to let burn.
“You kind of had to triage and pick and choose what you did with the amount of resources up there,” said Capt. Steve Woldorf with the East Grand Fire Protection District. “I’ve seen structures burn in fires, but nothing this fast.”
Even when firefighters did have time to focus on a home, dousing creeping flames or keeping a burning structure from threatening others nearby, sometimes their efforts were in vain.
“We felt pretty good that we’d save these structures and you move to the next one,” said Becker, with Grand Fire Protection District. “There was a good sense of ‘You’re doing a lot of good work.’ Then one you thought you’d saved would cook off right behind you.”
He felt like he was “working in hell.”
The local firefighters who fought the East Troublesome fire tested human endurance.
Some worked 24 hours straight before taking a short break to catch some sleep. After getting enough rest to be able to function again — one firefighter said he could barely climb in and out of his truck — they headed back out to battle the flames.
But the wildfire didn’t really subside until three days after the fire made its terrifying run across Grand County when a storm dropped a cold, wet blanket of snow over the burn area. Homes were still burning up until then.
Becker said when he got home from his first shift on the fire, his skin was so red from the heat that his wife thought he was sunburned. “The heat was like I was inside of a blast furnace all night,” he said.
Mayer, the Grand Lake fire marshal, turned 58 during the firefight.
“I didn’t know I had it in me to do a 41-hour shift,” he said.
At least seven first responders — including emergency dispatchers — lost their own homes to the flames. One volunteer firefighter, a man in his 60s, also lost his dogs when the fire swept through his property.
“These guys were up for days,” said Schelly Olsen, assistant chief of the Grand Fire Protection District. “They were up nonstop.”
Olsen was among the first responders who lost their homes. She had lived in her house near the Grand Lake Golf Course for 15 years. She was in Florida when the flames came roaring through, trying to take a break after working the nearby Williams Fork fire near Winter Park for 50 days.
“I was on the phone with my wildland captain at midnight as he drove through my neighborhood to tell me that my house was gone,” she said, choking back tears.
Now that it’s over, those who battled one of the worst fires in Colorado history say they’re shocked that more people didn’t die. More than anything, they are proud that they were able to get most everyone out of the fire’s way.
“I hope never in my life I ever see anything like that again,” said Everhart, Grand Lake’s public works director.
The final tally of the East Troublesome fire’s destruction is still pending. Almost two weeks after the inferno came barrelling through, authorities still haven’t said exactly how many homes were lost. So far, they’ve identified more than 300 homes and another 100 to 200 secondary structures — like barns and garages — that were burned.
“Unfortunately,” Grand Like Fire Protection District Chief Kevin Ratzmann said, “this is Grand County’s little 9/11. This is one of the worst events, if not the worst event, that’s ever hit this county. We will get through this together.”
Staff writer Lucy Haggard contributed to this report.
Emergency radio audio provided by Broadcastify.
Updated at 10:08 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 2, 2020: This story has been updated to correct the name of Grand Fire Protection District’s chief. The chief’s name is Brad White.