East Troublesome Fire Is Now The Second-Largest In Colorado History, Spurred Estes Park Evacuations

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
At 2:15 p.m. in the afternoon, it’s dark as night — and traffic is at a standstill — as people evacuate Estes Park. Much of the town is under mandatory evacuation orders from the nearby Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires. Oct. 22, 2020.

Updated 6:03 p.m.

Windy conditions propelled the East Troublesome fire over the Continental Divide, making it the second-largest wildfire in recorded state history.

There is a chance the blaze could also merge with the Cameron Peak fire, Colorado's largest recorded fire.

The rapid spread prompted evacuations from Estes Park.

Roads clogged as residents and visitors left town to stay ahead of a fire already burning at high altitudes in Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Larimer County Sheriff issued the evacuation order just after noon. Soon, roads filled as smoke from the fire darkened the sky. 

An evacuee traffic jam on U.S. 36 under dark midday skies

Evacuations started just at Gov. Jared Polis — who used to represent Estes Park as a congressman — gave his afternoon briefing on the late-season wildfires now scorching the state.

The order was given far enough in advance to allow people to leave without fear of the fire overtaking them, as happened in Grand County Wednesday, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokesman Jared Fiel.

"None of the roads are going to be quick getting out of there right now, let's face it,” Fiel said. “You've got 7,000 people trying to get out of that community at one time."

A single lane of highway can carry about 1,000 vehicles an hour, Fiel said, predicting that traffic would clear out by later Thursday. As a last resort, Fiel said, CDOT could allow outgoing traffic to use both lanes of the major highways leaving Estes Park. Grand County officials did something similar Wednesday. But such a move introduces safety issues of its own, Fiel said, like the need for first responders to quickly get back into town. 

Video from CPR News’ Michael Elizabeth Sakas shows traffic picking up on U.S. 36 as it crosses Lake Estes. Vehicles, with their headlights on, plod east under the dark sky.

Evacuations also continued out of Granby and Grand Lake

Granby evacuees Jennifer Seifert and her son Austin Nixon are staying at the Winter Park Lodge. Seifert grew up in Granby and just moved back in 2019 after living in Aurora for 27 years. She bought her dream home and just finished getting everything put in its place about a month ago.

As far as she knows, it is still standing. But her roommate had just left after attempting last-minute measures to protect the house.

"He spent the night there last night (and) heard explosions,” Seifert said. “He thought that it was thunder and it was actually people's propane tanks exploding and houses burning up."

It's unclear how many homes have been lost in the fire. Meanwhile, the historic Grand Lake Lodge has so far been spared. General Manager Charity Baxter said the lodge is not yet out of danger and that fire crews planned to attempt to build a fire perimeter around the structure Thursday evening, weather permitting.

Baxter closed the lodge for the season on Oct. 12 and is currently in North Carolina visiting family. She had confirmed the few staff still on the property had evacuated safely. Preparing herself for the possibility of losing the lodge, she said she hoped, “the memories and the community that the lodge created transcends the actual physical structure.”

Garrett Brammer, barn maintenance manager at the C Lazy U Ranch, said they put a call out for help moving more than a hundred horses from Grand County to Evergreen. 

That's since bounced around social media websites and resulted in more than a dozen volunteers from places like Colorado Springs, Cheyenne and the Eastern Plains pitching in to help.

Brammer said it's been a welcome reprieve in what's been an extremely difficult week.

"It still hasn't quite hit yet," he said. "But what we do have is the support of a community and the state as a whole. We're focused on what we have right now, and we'll assess the property when it's appropriate."

Brammer said they likely don't need more help moving horses at this point. But interested parties can reach him at 208-874-3411.

The forecast going forward

While strong, westerly winds and warm temperatures helped the East Troublesome Fire grow Wednesday, National Weather Service meteorologist Greg Hanson said cooler temperatures and an easterly wind could help protect the town of Estes Park itself. 

“I’m optimistic for them,” he said at a press briefing Thursday afternoon.

He added, “It's going to be close on the western edge of the city, but I think the city itself will be OK.”

But strong winds at higher elevations could keep the fire active in the nearby national park, which is one of the most visited in the country. 

“Of all places on this earth that I’ve walked, Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park outpace everything in beauty by a wide margin,” John Crawford of Kansas City, Mo. said on Twitter. “It's a sanctuary of peace, serenity, and spirituality. It tears at my heart to see much of it threatened.”

CPR News' Dan Boyce contributed to this report.