‘We Are In Defensive Mode’: Grand County’s Fast-Growing East Troublesome Fire Prompts More Evacuations

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The East Troublesome fire burns near Granby Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

Update: As of 5:42 p.m., Thursday, the East Troublesome Fire grew 170,000.It's now the second largest fire in state history. Earlier in the day, it hovered around 126,000 acres. Wednesday, the fire hovered around 30,000 acres.

A chaotic morning of howling winds is fueling the growth of the East Troublesome Fire on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park. Weather and wind along with beetle-killed trees helped propel an overnight explosion in acreage and prompted evacuations of Grand Lake. As the fire marches eastward, RMNP has been closed and some evacuation orders have been issued for Estes Park.

Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference on Thursday he activated the National Guard on Wednesday to help with search and rescue. He sounded concerned as he thanked crews battling the fires and called attention to people affected.

"Our top priority is to make sure that residents of Grand Lake, other evacuated communities, those that remain unaccounted for, are safe," Polis said.

He noted the “devastating loss of homes and properties” and steps taken like creating fire barriers at the local level to help prevent fires from expanding into other areas and causing more destruction. More than 6,500 homes were asked to evacuate in Grand Lake due to the East Troublesome fire, Polis said, though he acknowledged they’re not all primary residences.

The governor then turned the briefing over to Scott Jalbert, area commander for the Rocky Mountain Area Command, who said they’re tracking the fire from heat signatures and observation on the ground.

They’re handling seven fires in the area, including East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Calwood Fire.

Jalbert said their main strategy right now is focusing on life and making sure people are evacuated and are removed from affected areas as soon as possible. He said they're moving resources around to hit hot spots, adding that the Cameron Peak fire is expanding both to the north and to the south. Jalbert noted that there are not enough resources available to completely envelop the large fires.

“We are in a defensive mode,” Jalbert said.

Fire Conditions 'Basically Out Of A Movie'

Wind gusts up to 60 mph on Wednesday night caused the fire to tear into the town of Grand Lake, just west of Rocky Mountain National Park. Will Crossland returned to live in the mountain community earlier this year, to wait out the pandemic.

“It possesses a magic that when you spend time on their shores, you understand,” Crossland said. “And to think of sitting on that lake and looking out and seeing a giant burn scar and seeing houses lost is just devastating.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
With the East Troublesome fire blowing close to Granby, officials posted a pre-evacuation notice Thursday afternoon, Oct. 22, 2020. Motorists joined a long slow procession out of town on Hwy. 40 south.

The historic Grand Lake Lodge and the town’s downtown area have not burned, said town manager John Crone. But, he added that there are “significant adverse weather conditions today” in the area.

Ernie Bjorkman, a long-time TV newscaster for KWGN in Denver who retired to Grand Lake nearly two years ago, said he left his home in a hurry Wednesday evening.

“It was basically out of a movie. It was a firestorm in downtown Grand Lake. Smoke and embers flying around. It was just a chaotic scene,” said Bjorkman, who now sits on the Grand Lake town council. “We locked the door and said, 'hopefully, house, we'll see you when we get back.' ”

Bjorkman said the community will have a huge task ahead of it, once fire crews bring it under control.

“It's a beautiful little community,” he said. “And I know it sounds cliché, but I know we'll be a lot stronger we get back home and find out what the damage is, and how we can help rebuild and heal.”

Sam Ordway, who lives along with his partner in the Scanlock Subdivision on the west side of Lake Granby, evacuated on Wednesday as well. The Reverse 911 order to go came around 8 o’clock by their recollection, but they were already on pre-evacuation notice for the last several days and felt ready.

“Our urgency came from seeing the flames up on Table Mountain,” Ordway said of the landmark about a half-mile from their house. “That was our big encouragement.”

A masonry contractor by trade, as far as he knows, his house is OK. He’s listened to scanner traffic and some information filtered through firefighters suggests they came out alright. It's not yet known how many homes have been lost to the fire, but the same emergency scanners Ordway listened to have indicated significant damage.

A Smoky, Rude Awakening For Estes Park

Rocky Mountain National Park has fully closed to all visitors due to fire activity. Trail Ridge Road is open for evacuation eastbound if needed and closed westbound due to downed trees on the road, according to park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson.

The park said that air quality is currently hazardous.

In Estes Park, the air smelled like burning wood, and the gateway town to the national park was inundated with smoke in the morning. The smell reached down the canyon, almost to Pinewood Springs. Even in the dark before sunrise, it was clear how heavy the sky was. As the sun came up, the sky in town was glowing orange.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Smoke from the East Troublesome fire and Cameron Peak fire looms over the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020.

Alec Rogers, who moved to Estes from Ohio a few weeks ago, woke up to the smell of the fire. By the time he walked outside his apartment, a smoky haze had settled over the entire city.

“The air quality has just decreased to a level that's almost unsafe to go outside,” he said.

Rogers, a trained forester who has worked around wildfires in the past, said he’s not scared but worries he’ll have to evacuate. Since he just moved in, he could easily throw his essentials in a backpack and jump in the car.

“I'm just watching the fire very, very intently because it just keeps getting closer and closer as more of them pop up,” he said.

Michael Sakas/CPR News
Gary Williams stands in a parking lot in Estes Park. Williams lives in Pinewood Springs, where in 2013 he was helicoptered out of due to flooding. “I’d rather have the flood than the fire,” he said. “A fire, it’s almost, you can’t stop it.” He’s getting ready to evacuate just in case. Oct. 22, 2020

In Pinewood Springs, Gary Williams is worried about multiple fires and worries winds will cut off routes out of the city. His plan is to buy a few groceries and quickly pack up photos and essential paperwork like birth certificates before he flees the area.

In 2013, Williams had to evacuate due to devastating floods. To him, the fires are much scarier. Williams is concerned that climate change is helping fuel fires that are bigger and harder to extinguish. 

“We the people better start thinking [about] what’s going to happen,” he said, adding that Coloradans should ignore political leaders who deny climate change and listen to scientists.

Crews were able to hold the containment lines along the west side of the fire Wednesday. Still, the East Troublesome wildfire joins a record-breaking fire year for Colorado. The Cameron Peak fire, which is still burning to the north of Grand Lake, became the state’s largest this year, usurping the Pine Gulch fire which is now the second largest. The explosive growth of East Troublesome has pushed it up to the number four spot of the state’s largest wildfires.