Out of the ashes–after the East Troublesome fire

Paul Karlsson stands in the burn area before his family’s cabin on Sheriff’s Creek. The area was among the first to be evacuated, and though fire came within feet of the cabin, the structure survived. The flag waves again from the porch.

by Marissa Lorenz
2020 has been a year of trials across the globe, and no less so in Grand County where the community has not only had to stumble its
way through the uncertainty and confusion of the global pandemic that is COVID-19 but found itself the site of the second largest wildfire in Colorado history.

People across the county were evacuated during the active course of the East Troublesome Fire, which started near the Kremmling community of Big Horn Park on October 14 and, in a single unparalleled run on the night of October 21, fueled by an unexpectedly high wind in an area of dried beetle kill forest, exploded from 20,000-ish acres to 128,000 acres in a number of overnight hours, forcing the evacuation of over 4,000 residents and burning 589 structures.

With no warning, people were left without homes and without security. They were left with the loss of dreams and heritage and, for one family, the loss of their beloved grandparents.

And nearly a month later, while the various government entities work to determine damage, costs, responsibilities, and next steps in the “recovery” process, those people who had to flee their homes, those who never had a chance to grab even the most precious mementos from their family cabins, and those who have since found homes spared amid the destruction of the forest are tentatively trying to find their own steps forward.

The process will be a long one. Homeowners waited days to find out the status of their homes and properties. Recovery estimates envision two and three years. And as they’ve been slowly allowed back to assess their disparate situations, they are now faced with a tangle of unanswered questions, bureaucratic procedures, and unethical scams.

But mountain people are nothing if not resilient, and such is the case for those who have been drawn to Grand County, calling it their home and/or their refuge.

And like the mythological bird rising from the ashes, the victims of the East Troublesome fire are lifting themselves and each other up, discovering bonds of strength and moments of hope.

Paul Karlsson’s neighborhood up Sheriff’s Creek, north of Hot Sulphur Springs, was one of the earliest areas to be evacuated. Put on pre-evacuation the day the fire started, he came up from Golden to do some mitigation on the 40 acres that his parents bought in 1964 on a historic homestead.

The fire would sweep through the neighborhood on October 20, threatening the rustic cabin with no running water or electricity. A neighbor gave a play-by-play of helicopters and slurry planes and sent images of cabins surrounded by flames. With concentrated firefighting efforts, all five cabins on the original homestead would survive.

And when Paul hiked in after the firestorm and snow had passed, he found a dozer line around the perimeter of the cabin, a disappeared fence, charred steps in front of his outhouse, and the American flag that had flown proudly above the home, taken down and folded into a tight triangle on a chair on the porch.

“It brought tears to my eyes,” Paul says. “It was the most intense, emotional moment of my life. My family’s property–legacy–completely changed in one day. And to see the flag sitting on the porch–it was the end all.”

Scott Love tells of the property his father, Dan Love, purchased in Trail Creek, west of Highway 34, 47 years ago. “It’s where I grew up,” he recalls.

With his parents and just a few keepsakes safe in Denver, the family went through “a week and a half of speculation about whether or not the home survived,” Scott describes. “It did not. We now have a burnt pile of rubble.”

But he also depicts the relief upon finally knowing what had happened. “When we first drove up, we wondered, if the valley is
a moonscape, what will we do?

Sit on it? Sell it? Rebuild? We weren’t sure. But–gosh–there’s life here. The soul of the Valley is very much present. And we took a lot of encouragement from it.”

Scott shares a particularly moving moment when his dad, now 83, after finding his home, his garage, workshop, tools, ATV, snowmobiles, and a tractor destroyed by fire, mounted a second tractor that had been left near a pond away from
the house and started it right up.

“It was delightful,” Scott shares. “Dad had a huge smile on his face. I think it was redemptive for him to still have the tractor,
such an important tool in caring for the property over the years.”

Jamie Masselink’s family, who lives in Lakewood, has dreamed of owning a home in Grand County, a place where her kids can “take time in nature, away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

They have rented their “dream cabin” in Trail Creek a few times over the years and just recently found that it was on the market. They were outbid on their first offer on the house, but that sale fell through. Their second offer was accepted and they were set to close on the property at the end of October. Given the fire and state of emergency, that didn’t happen.

But Jamie and her family would discover that the home is still standing with minimal property damage.

“It’s a miracle,” she says. “Things will look very different, we know. But it’s still our dream house. We still plan on purchasing it and can’t wait to be second home owners and part of a community that has really come together to connect with and support each other.

We are invested now in the community, and we want to invest in this home that’s going to become our forever place.”

The family of Kristi Knuti Rodrigues acquired 40 acres in Trail Creek when her grandfather, Christopher Munch, received the land as his portion of the cash-out when his shared company Kaydare dissolved. Kaydare operated a small single-tow ski hill called

“Ski Trail Mountain” from 1968 to 1971 in the Trail Creek area.

Her grandfathers, parents, aunts, and uncles would build the rustic cabin during the time that her mom was pregnant with her. It would become the “symbol of our family” to Kristi, her cousins, and now their children. “It was a magical experience as a kid, to learn to build fires, find your way over the land, and find the spirit of the wilderness.”

The cabin would be completely lost in the explosion of the East Troublesome Fire.
“It’s been very hard for me,” Kristi describes. “It was the last tangible place where I shared family space with loved ones who have passed on.”

The family has a memorial stone on the property where the ashes of her relatives are buried, including those of her brother who died of cancer at the age of 16. “It was his favorite place, too” she shares.

“I think that’s what was so hard about losing the cabin, feeling the loss of connection–the memories it was tied to and the people it was tied to. But I know what I’m really tied to is the land.”

Her family’s memorial and the two crosses beside it would survive unscathed. And Kristi’s memories will live on in her heart and in her stories and in the stories that her family will continue to create as they plan to rebuild, her dad taking on the role her grandfather had previously held in guiding and advising the work.

“Our cabin came into being as I did,” Kristi writes, “–her deck built in my first months of life, er logs placed and secured by the hands of my parents, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles. She housed the magic of my childhood as I explored the wilderness with my brother and cousins and fell asleep to the sound of adults talking and fire crackling.

“Her walls absorbed my grandfather’s laughter and music and my brother’s smile and knowing gaze. She stood as a reminder of my parents’ bravery, love, and strength. She protected and held me when I lost my brother. She comforted me when

The Karlsson family found their previously flying American flag carefully folded and preserved by firefighting personnel.

my grandparents, uncle, and great aunt joined him. She bonded siblings, cousins, spouses, parents, children, grandparents, and countless friends. She gave my husband and children a taste of the same wonder in her final years as we discovered old forts and told stories in the flickering darkness.

“She will whisper to me up there along with my brother, my grandfather, and so many others who once laughed, cried, and sang within her walls.

Her land will rejuvenate and grow stronger—as will we. I return our cabin back to the wild from where she came, and I appreciate the loan.”

Kristi Knuti Rodrigues with her grandfather in 1982.