A year after the East Troublesome wildfire, some residents work to rebuild homes and community while others move away for good

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Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Charred trees are surrounded by baby aspens changing colors in the burn scars in Grand County on Oct. 7, 2021.

When the East Troublesome fire ignited a year ago, no one expected what would come next. 

About a week after the initial spark, the winds picked up and combined with historically dry conditions, and the wildfire rapidly blew up to nearly 190,000 acres

The flames closed Rocky Mountain National Park and made a run into Grand Lake, which was placed under mandatory evacuation orders along with Estes Park. Traffic backed up as people tried to leave town, and some residents barely escaped what would become Colorado’s second-largest wildfire on record. Two people died and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

Those who lost homes in the East Troublesome fire are working to rebuild or find a new place to live. Others have moved away for good.

"It doesn't feel quite like home"

A thin metal sign hangs on the outside of a large log home in Grand County. It reads, “Welcome to the Olsons,” and is slightly twisted and bent. Its surface and color show a smoky gray patina from East Troublesome’s flames.

Schelly Olson answers the door and gives a tour of her new house, which she and her husband bought after their previous home burned down nearby.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
This sign survived the East Troublesome fire and now hangs on Schelly Olson's new home in Grand County, Oct. 7, 2021.

Olson points to a few other things that survived the fire — a bracelet and watch. Her husband’s class ring, now singed. There’s a vase in the bathroom that survived the flames. In the guest bedroom are a couple of small figurines which also made it through the fire.

Olson said everyone in her family is handling the trauma and grief differently. 

“I still don't feel OK,” Olson said. “It doesn't feel quite like home. I'm working through that. Definitely a lot of therapy.”

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Schelly Olson shows a photo album that didn't burn, on Oct. 7, 2021, because it was with another family member. These albums and scrapbooks were given to Olson because she lost her photos in the fire.

Olson is familiar with fire. She’s assistant chief at Grand Fire Protection District No. 1. Part of her job is to talk to people who have had their lives derailed by wildfires.

The roles have flipped, and Olson is learning first-hand what life is like as a wildfire survivor. That struggle started when she returned to the neighborhood where she lived for more than 20 years.

“It was decimated. It looked like a war zone,” Olson said.

Their home was surrounded by the burn. Olson and her husband didn’t want to rebuild. They couldn’t see themselves living there anymore. It was “just too much,” she said.

The couple started to look for a new home away from Grand County. They considered areas from Evergreen to Glenwood Springs. But Olson eventually realized that she didn’t want to leave her community entirely. Friends have been texting, “full of anxiety and sadness,” as the first anniversary of the fire approached. 

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
This is a scrapbook that Schelly Olson made. It didn't burn because it was with another family member. It pictures the Olson's Grand County home before it burned down.

“It’s really comforting to know that we're all right here and we can just drive over and see each other,” Olson said. 

It’s also hard to be surrounded by the reminders of what happened last year, Olson said. The blackened trees and the remains of former homes. Revisiting her old neighborhood is still very difficult.

A friend and former neighbor of Olson’s did decide to rebuild. 

“Hopefully by Monday we have a kitchen”

Matthew Reed-Tolonen is with a construction crew on the site where his home burned down in 2020. A brand new house has taken its place. The builders are finishing trim work and hanging doors. 

“Hopefully by Monday we have a kitchen,” Reed-Tolonen said. He hopes to be moved in by Christmas, which has been the goal since his home burned down. Reed-Tolonen, his wife, and their daughter have been renting while they reconstruct their home — and their lives.

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Matthew Reed-Tolonen and throws a stick for a dog outside of his newly re-built home in Grand County on Oct. 7, 2021.

Reed-Tolonen said the neighborhood, which has views of Rocky Mountain National Park, is still the families’ dream location. Much of what made it a community was neighbors like Schelly Olson, who have moved away.

“They're still friends and they will be forever,” Reed-Tolonen said. “A lot of us went through something together, that’ll keep us forever together regardless of where they live.”

Reed-Tolonen credited the Grand County community, including local contractors, suppliers and business owners, for rallying to help homeowners rebuild quickly after East Troublesome. He said lumber yards and sawmills made sure he got materials before other customers because the owners knew the home he lost was his family’s primary residence. 

Reed-Tolonen’s new home has a little more fire protection than was lost in the fire. He said some of the improvements were intentional and some were not. Reed-Tolonen’s patio is now stamped concrete instead of wood — a change that’s cheaper and less likely to catch fire. The boards on his new deck are plastic. 

“Ultimately, it could definitely still burn, but it's gonna be a lot harder this time around,” Reed-Tolonen said.

Reed-Tolonen said he was $300,000 underinsured. That was the case for many people, and it’s making it hard for Grand County residents to rebuild. 

"I feel the colors coming back in a different way"

There’s a chalkboard in the window of Marjorie Cranston’s art gallery in Grand Lake that still holds the words she wrote when she was finally allowed to return about a week after the fire. She was relieved to find everything inside was OK. She grabbed some chalk and wrote:

“The fire took my home. It did not take my heart. The fire took my art. It did not burn my will to create. The fire consumed my comfort. It did not take my soul. It never destroyed my faith in God. Welcome to my studio, it remains.”

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
A chalkboard in Marjorie Cranston's art gallery window in Grand Lake on Oct. 7, 2021. Cranston wrote this message in the days after the fire, and has kept it since.

When visitors come to Cranston’s art gallery and see the message she wrote after the fire, they open up and talk about their own personal struggles.

“It's been meaningful, I think, to people, to see that you can go through something and have hope,” she said.

Cranston’s art gallery has been on Grand Avenue for more than 20 years. She’s an impressionist who mostly works in pastel. After the fire, Cranston’s paintings started focusing on scenes of regrowth and healing. She points to a landscape hanging on the wall that features blackened sticks and trees but centers on a patch of bright green grass in the foreground. 

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Marjorie Cranston stands in front of her pastel paintings of the Grand County landscape at her gallery on Grand Ave on Oct. 7, 2021.

She said her relationship with the landscape has changed since the fire. She said painting now feels more emotional. 

“I think sometimes you just paint to paint, but now I don't. I want to paint with meaning,” Cranston said. “For a while, [my work] was a little bit darker. But I love color, and now I feel the colors coming back in a different way.”

Cranston also decided to rebuild her home, but she too was underinsured. Cranston has had to be resourceful with her limited budget and has collected components for her new house piece by piece. She bought all of her light fixtures on eBay and other second-hand websites like Etsy and ordered discount siding and had it shipped in from another state to save money. It’s been a challenge, but Cranston has accepted it because she “wants to go home.”

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Marjorie Cranston stands in the doorway of her Grand Lake art gallery on Oct. 7, 2021.

"I just don't think we can come back"

While some are rebuilding or buying new homes, the East Troublesome fire forced many residents out of Grand County permanently. Candace Cole now lives 100 miles away near Fort Collins. She said the decision to move was bittersweet but a fairly easy choice for her and her husband. 

“We moved [to Grand Lake] for the beautiful views and the beautiful trees. And we just kind of looked around and said, I just don't think we can come back,” Cole said.

Cole said it was too expensive to rebuild, even with insurance. And many of the people that made her enjoy living in Grand County moved away after the fire. Cole now has a new house in a new neighborhood — and a new town.

The East Troublesome Fire burned away something that’s not material: her sense of community. She said that’s going to be the hardest thing to rebuild. Cole, a Colorado native, said it’s heartbreaking to see how much communities like Grand County lose after wildfires — which are likely to get bigger and hotter as the world gets warmer.

“Climate change is real and we need to actually do something about it,” Cole said. “It's just very frustrating, because you see these fires and you see the drought. That's just normal. It’s not stuff that we saw 15 or 20 years ago.”

Michael Elizabeth Sakas/CPR News
Charred trees are surrounded by baby aspens changing colors in the burn scars in Grand County on Oct. 7, 2021. Lake Granby is seen in the background.