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One year after Grand Lake’s sudden evacuation, the community gathers to heal
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Startling images of the East Troublesome Fire hang in an exhibit to help remember what was lost. 

GRAND LAKE, Colo. “I remember telling him to look back because I don't think we're coming back because it was so unimaginable to see it—basically what looked like a tidal wave of flames rushing right at us and everything we knew and loved," Emily Hagen recalled.

Speaking to Rocky Mountain PBS, Hagen had emotion in her voice knowing just how close her beloved town came to being destroyed. 

"And thinking about being here a year later," she said, "talking to you and not having lost our home…. it's still very, very, very surreal."

Hagen, like many residents in the small town of Grand Lake, has come a long way in recovering since the East Troublesome Fire tore through the area one year ago. But there is still more healing to come. 

October 21

The East Troublesome Fire was first reported on October 14, 2020. It started northeast of Kremmling, a town that is a good 45 minute drive from Grand Lake. As anyone in a mountain community will tell you, reported wildfires somewhat close by are not unusual; there wasn't a true sense of alarm for Grand Lake until October 21, 2020. 

“I was there the night it came through. It was something out of a movie. It was just eerie,” explained Thomas Cooper.

Cooper is a photojournalist who has been reporting on wildfires and storms in Colorado for more than two decades. With that experience, as well as technical and safety training on wildfires and protective gear, Cooper found himself photographing several wildfires in October of 2020. It was a wildfire season like most Coloradans had never seen, with multiple large wildfires burning at the same time late into the season.

“I basically was following several different fires, and I was on my way to the Cameron Peak Fire when the CalWood Fire out of Boulder blew up. And when that happened it kind of just happened right in front of me. I ended up covering the CalWood Fire for, you know, two days or something like that. And then I kept hearing a lot of radio traffic about what, what the East Troublesome Fire was doing and how fast it was moving,” Cooper recalled.

In the late afternoon of October 21, 2020, the winds picked up in a way that changed the course of hundreds of lives. 

“I've heard now after the fact that we had winds clocking at 120 mile an hour gusts, which … if you can even think about that, it’s small tornadic winds,” explained Cooper. 

In just 24 hours, the fire grew from 18,550 acres to 187,964 acres. It jumped Highway 125 and rapidly spread eastward into Rocky Mountain National Park. That is when Grand Lake was in very real danger.

With just minutes to prepare, residents had to leave their homes and all their prized possessions behind. In some cases, people made desperate final attempts to save their homes.

“I saw hoses that were laid out and people's last-ditch effort to try to spray down their house before the fire came through,” Cooper recalled. “This fire's coming through and you're grabbing a hose to soak your house down and then leave and just pray for the best.”

Cooper, meanwhile, remained in the area to document what no one else was able to see. 

“One of the photos that I had shot a picture ofI think it was like a garage or a barn or some kind of small structure was burning, but in the background, their house was still there,” said Cooper. “And they saw this and they were just in tears because they had known that, 'Yeah, we lost a small garage and outbuilding, but we didn't lose our house.'”

Eventually the fire became so intense that Cooper had to leave as well. Then the fire did something he never thought was possible: it crossed the continental divide. The fire spread to the western edge of Estes Park, which was already under evacuation warnings for the nearby Cameron Peak Fire. Luckily, the worst was avoided and the fires did not combine as some fire officials had feared. The main town of Estes Park was spared but back on the other side of the divide, Grand County suffered tremendous losses. More than 500 structures were destroyed and two people died in the fire. 

Troublesome Stories

Photo: GoGrandLake, Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce

Grand Lake is a small town nestled between the mountains and a large lake. Its downtown is full of shops, restaurants and lodging. It is a picture perfect example of a Colorado mountain town, with lots of outdoor activities and an economy that is largely based on tourism.   

The town was happy for summer of 2021 to come around. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and so many small business owners having to rebuild their homes from the fire, tourists were necessary for everyone to bounce back. 

With that in mind, Hagen, who is the executive director of the Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, knew she had to do something to let visitors know what happened here in October 2020. 

“What I need them [tourists] to see is the impact to our community. I need them to understand that when we say we lost 600 structures, we're talking about people's homes, people's things, and people's memories and the trauma of leaving those things with seven minutes notice,” said Hagen. 

Last November, she came up with the idea of an exhibit. 

“My initial thought was really kind of 'keep it to facts,' so that when someone's in town and they want to know about the fire, they're not asking a business owner who lost their house,” explained Hagen. “As a part of this community, it was really important for me to find not just a way to educate tourists, but also give our business owners and our residents a way to deflect what could be difficult conversations if they had to.”

Hagen had seen some of Cooper’s pictures shared on social media and decided to reach out to see if he was interested in including his photos in the exhibit.

“Right from … our first conversation, he was like, ‘Yep, I'm all in.’ Without even me being able to discuss with him what the deliverable would look like,” said Hagen. 

From Cooper's perspective, this was a chance to go beyond a photo featured in a newspaper; it could give people the chance to really teach people about what can happen with these wildfires.

With Cooper on board, Hagen realized she wanted visitors to really feel the impact, so she opened the exhibit up to collecting artifacts and stories. 

Photo: GoGrandLake, Grand Lake Area Chamber of Commerce

“You'd be able to look at the exhibit and even see something as simple as an everyday item, like a toaster or something really special,” explained Hagen. “I have one member, one friend, who brought in her jewelry and it's still in jewelry boxes, and the beads are burned up, and you can still kind of tell what they are. I really wanted to add that personal element.”

On June 26, 2021, the Troublesome Stories exhibit opened in the visitor center of Grand Lake. Through purely donations and volunteers, it has been open every day since. More than 15,000 people have visited. 

“I wanted our tourists to know that they were welcomed, that we want them here, that they're a big part of our recovery,” said Hagen. "But to put on a lens of compassion when they're here, because our community is still hurting and still healing in the beginning stages of healing from … a very traumatic event.”

Hagen has heard some of the stories where walking through and seeing the photos and artifacts had an big impact on visitors. She said one shop owner remembered a man coming in after seeing the exhibit, laying his head down on the shop counter and sobbing, saying he had no idea this happened.

But this exhibit isn’t just for visitors to the town; it’s also a part of the healing process for some of the community members. Both Cooper and Hagen talked about moments where they have been in the exhibit and the emotions were too much to handle. 

“I've had some encounters this summer where someone I know will walk in and look around and then turn around and walk out. And then a few weeks later they'll walk in, and they'll make it inside a little bit further and then they'll turn around and walk out,” Hagen described. “And I just, I let that process happen as naturally as it can.”

Cooper said he has seen the same reaction where just being in what he describes as a “walkthrough book” causes a person to have to leave. Other times he has seen people have what he called “a Kleenex box moment.”

For others in the town, this exhibit is something they needed in their own healing process. Hagen says some of the volunteers who help run the exhibit lost homes in the fire. 

A third goal for this exhibit is to educate the public on fire danger in the mountains. The cause of the East Troublesome Fire is still under investigation but it is believed to be human-caused. And both Hagen and Cooper want visitors to think twice before starting that camp fire. 

“Everybody's mindset is we want to go into the forest and start a campfire, roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories and all this," said Cooper. "And maybe if somebody sees this and sees what the after effects are and what this does to a community, maybe they would think twice about that... or maybe if they did, they would take a little extra time to follow the proper precautions to put it out.”

The exhibit is currently only set to stay open through the end of the month. Some items are on loan and will be returned to the owners, but Hagen has a mission to keep it open in some capacity moving forward. 

“There's still a lot of life left in this exhibit. I think that we still have a lot of interest in it. As long as there's people who want to learn more, I'll find a way to make sure they get to learn more,” said Hagen.

Events to mark one year later

For Hagen and the town of Grand Lake, marking the date so many of their lives changed was important. 

On Thursday, October 21 at 7 p.m., the chamber of commerce held a bell-ringing event in the town park. 

“In Grand Lake, we're acknowledging the night of the 21st because that's the night it really pushed us out of our homes," said Hagen. 

A bell rang 21 times to signify the 21st, then was a pause and one additional ring to signify the first anniversary of the fire. Grand Lake Fire Protection District Chief Seth St. Germain said a few words before the ceremony. It was be a short gathering intentionally as Hagen believed it might be a tough evening for some. 

Below is the video from the bell ringing. 

On Saturday, October 23, the chamber hosted a free community lunch with an opportunity to sit down with all of the first responders who worked on the East Troublesome Fire last year. The chamber displayed signs to thank those who were on the front lines.

You can see pictures from the community event below.

Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin was one of those people, and often delivered the hard news to the community during the fire. He says he and his team constantly see the appreciation from the community. 

“As we drive around this county we see the thank you signs. I can’t go into any store without someone telling me thank you,” said Schroetlin. He went on to emphasize as sheriff, he is often the face that gets recognized but that all first responders in Grand County are the ones to be truly grateful for.

Schroetlin attended both Thursday and Saturday’s events in Grand Lake. And he was one of the speakers on Saturday and wanted to recognize the amazing progress the county has made in just one year. 

“There are a lot of homes going up, a lot of greenery coming back. It’s wonderful to see,” said Schroetlin. “My message to the community is collectively we can do a lot of good things together.”

Cooper was also at the one year commemoration events. He’s continued to photograph the recovery efforts over the last year and really feels connected to the people there. 

“I'm part of this community now because of my coverage and stuff that I've been doing up there. And I want this to be something that I cover in it's an entirety,” said Cooper. 

“He doesn’t know it yet, but we’ve fully adopted him as a Grand Laker … he's just one of us now,” said Hagen.

And that feeling of pride to be a Grand Laker is something that is even stronger than it was before the fire. This small town gives a sense of belonging and togetherness that has helped them make great strides in the recovery process just one year later.  

“I don't think I could go through this with a different group of people, but we don't need to worry about that because I am going through this with my people,” said Hagen “And well, it's not easy and there's still a lot of hurt, but we're moving forward bit by bit."

Photos of the East Troublesome Fire and aftermath were provided by Thomas Cooper of Lightbox Images. You can see more of his work on lightboximages.com.


Amanda Horvath is a multimedia producer with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can email her at amandahorvath@rmpbs.org

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