Fire brings uncertainty and unity

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by Marissa Lorenz
“I don’t know what we’ll see in the morning, to be honest,” said Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin, in a 1:15 am Facebook statement Thursday morning, in regard to the East Troublesome Fire, which exploded Wednesday evening and into the night.

“But you know what?” he continued, a quaver in his voice.

“Together as a community, we’re going to get through this. Your incredible first responders today–police, fire, EMS, Search and Rescue–hit this north part of the county so hard. There were some incredible rescues and some incredible evacuations. They were here for you.

“Second, our community really came together today. Our community is Grand–we are without a doubt. We’re going to get through this together.”
… words the community needed to hear after facing hours
of unanticipated crisis and an ongoing uncertainty that would continue into the morning and, likely, the upcoming days.

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The East Troublesome Fire began above Corral Creek, northwest of Parshall and directly east of Bighorn Park, just over a week ago, around 4:00 pm, Wednesday, October 14. Reported at around 400 acres that night, it had grown to nearly 3,500 acres by morning.

Big Horn Park was evacuated Wednesday night. Flames and smoke could be seen from within the town of Kremmling, shooting up into the sky above the Troublesome ridge to the northeast. Through the night, the orange glow moved down the ridge traveling east-southeast.

Fire suppression efforts faced early challenges, including few access roads into the forest, heavy dead and downed timber, dry and windy weather conditions–and resource shortages with over 440,000 acres of wildfires burning simultaneously across north central Colorado and southern Wyoming.

While Big Horn Park residents would eventually go back home, remaining under pre-evacuation notice, Corral Creek was evacuated on Thursday. It would take just one week for the fire to grow to 19,086 acres, the size recorded in an incident overview at 9:46 am, Wednesday, October 21.

At that time, the fire continued to move toward the east, and 295 fire personnel focused primarily on the southeast flank, south of Elk Mountain and moving toward Drowsy Water and Kinney Creeks, and on the northeast flank, where the fire was moving toward highway 125. The fire crossed 125 at around 3:30 in the afternoon near Cabin Creek, and areas east of the highway were evacuated, including the historic C Lazy U Ranch.

During a regularly scheduled update, live streamed at 5:30 Wednesday evening, Incident Commander Jay Winfield of the Northern Rockies Type 2 Team 6 provided a briefing that indicated heavy fire activity throughout the day with high wind and smoke, preventing all but some early air support. The fire had already grown to over 30,000 acres, with the most information being provided by MMA or Multi-Mission Aircraft flights.
Questions were asked by the public about areas further east, nearing Granby and Lake Granby. Officials assured that the areas further east were not under any official evacuation or pre-evacuation notice, though they encouraged all residents in those areas to be prepared in case of that need.

But by 6:30 pm, the Trail Creek subdivision was ordered evacuated. And at 7:30 pm, not two hours
later, an immediate evacuation had been ordered for the entire area north of Highway 40 and on both sides of US Highway 34, including the entire town of Grand Lake. Rocky Mountain National Park would close first the west side of the park and then the whole park.

County Manager Kate McIntire would confirm a total of 6,592 structures within the evacuation zones.

Facebook and phones were flooded by unsubstantiated reports of C Lazy U having burned, the Grand Lake Lodge burning, and all the homes in between. Those listening to scanners would eventually hear real discussion of structures being threatened, especially in the Columbine Lake area, calls for resources to save structures, and one order for firefighters to leave any structure that was already burning.

In that 1:00 am statement, a weary Sheriff Schroetlin would say, “Today has been an extremely, extremely challenging day for our community. We knew this fire was here. We knew the impacts of it. We looked at every possible potential for this fire… We never, ever expected 6,000 acres-per-hour to come upon our community.”

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With the rest of the community, County leaders found themselves prepared with little more than shock and concern as events unfolded. Near 7:30 pm on Wednesday, County Commissioner Rich Cimino made a direct call to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, uncertain if he had the correct number.

“I wanted him to be aware of the situation and that we were facing having to evacuate thousands of people,” Cimino explains. He says that the Governor was already following the situation and knew immediately the area under qu estion, asking if the fire had crossed Highway 125. Less than an hour later, Polis’ Chief of Staff Rick Palacio contacted Cimino.

“Kudos to the Governor,” Cimino stated. “He had his staff ready and responding to us. He knew about the fire, knew the data, and had his team reach back out.”

Cimino encourages towns and citizens to support the firefighting efforts by trusting the experts
and letting the first responders “get on with their jobs.”

“I’d like to see the rest of us start researching what other communities have done in similar circumstances that proved effective in supporting displaced residents and youth. I don’t–I don’t know what the recovery looks like. I encourage our leaders to start doing that research. We can’t help with the fire tonight. We can look for resources for tomorrow.”

County Commissioner Kris Manguso, who ranches just miles to the west of the fire, remained in awe on Wednesday. “This is going to change the county forever. It’s not just going to change the landscape. It’s going to change the people.”

But she notes the resilience of the community and expressed faith in the citizenry’s solidarity in times of need.
“We will get through this,” Manguso affirmed–a precursor to the Sheriff’s later sentiment. “We will get through this. And we will rebuild a strengthened Grand County together.”

**The fire was reported on InciWeb to be 125,602 acres at 8:00 am Thursday morning. The community is still waiting to understand what the full impacts are and how they may pull together, designing a Grand plan to help heal and rebuild after the physical and emotional traumas of such a natural disaster.