East Troublesome Fire video
Shelter offering free pet supplies
The Grand County Animal Shelter and Grand County Pet Pals are offering free animal supplies to residents impacted by the East Troublesome Fire.
Supplies include dog food, cat food, treats, toys, beds, litter, salt blocks, sweet mix and grain, among other options. The shelter received a truckload of donations on Jan. 16, so many supplies have been restocked.
The supplies are free to those who need them, including anyone who has picked up items before.
To make an appointment to pick up supplies, call the animal shelter at 970-887-2988.
East Troublesome Fire could cause water-quality impacts for years
KREMMLING — For some ranchers in Troublesome Valley, the worst impacts of the wildfire that began near there in October might not arrive until summer — or even summers beyond.
Experts say the greatest danger of sedimentation from the East Troublesome Fire will occur during and after a hard rain, especially of an inch or more. That is when the severe soil damage from the fire will cause sediment to wash into the east fork of Troublesome Creek and into a diversion ditch used to irrigate 10,000 acres of hay.
“It’s a real concern for us,” said Kent Whitmer, one of seven ranch owners who get water from the ditch owned by the East Troublesome Mutual Irrigation Co.
Whitmer said he most fears sediment filling the ditch so badly that it overflows.
“That would be disastrous,” he said.
Agricultural and municipal water users will see broad, lingering effects of the 193,812-acre fire.
The East Troublesome Fire, which had been burning east of Colorado Highway 125, exploded on the afternoon of Oct. 21, driven by 70 mph winds. In all, the fire grew 100,000 acres in 24 hours, eventually becoming the second-largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history. The fire was formally designated as contained Nov. 30, although small plumes of smoke could be seen in the golf course area as recently as Christmas Day. All but about 5,000 acres of the fire burned in Grand County.
Denver Water may offer lessons useful to water managers, who will be dealing with impacts from the East Troublesome Fire for years, perhaps decades. Denver Water has struggled with sediment and debris clogging its two major reservoirs in the foothills southwest of Denver. The fires that caused problems for those reservoirs — Buffalo Creek in 1996 and Hayman in 2002 — fried soils, removing their ability to absorb moisture. Sediment has been washed up to 11 miles into Strontia Springs and Cheesman reservoirs, pushed by water during summer cloudbursts.
Denver Water has spent $28 million in reservoir dredging, facilities repair and landscape-restoration projects. It discovered that debris and sediment can travel downstream to cause problems in critical water infrastructure. At Strontia Springs, Denver Water dredged for sediment as recently as five years ago but may need to do so again this year.
“Dredging is very costly,” Denver Water watershed scientist Christina Burri said during the recent post-fire water impacts webinar. Retrieving sediment and debris can be challenging, and then there’s the issue of what to do with the debris. “Do you pile it? Do you burn it? Where can you take it?” Burri said.
The East Troublesome Fire might produce fewer problems. A fire assessment called burned-area emergency response was conducted by U.S. Forest Service land managers and shows mostly low to moderate soil burn severity, suggesting lesser impacts to water quality.
But water managers still expect significant challenges come spring, when melting snow produces debris and sediment that can clog bridges, culverts and reservoirs.
Assessing the damage
The fire came through in October “so quickly that it didn’t have a chance to do long-term scarring of the soil,” said Jeff Strahla, public information officer for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. “However, this is still a sobering assessment because it really lays out the challenge we have going forward.”
Northern Water operates the Colorado-Big Thompson diversion project, which employs Willow Creek, Granby and Shadow Mountain reservoirs as well as Grand Lake to deliver water to more than a million people and 615,000 irrigated acres along the northern Front Range and in northeastern Colorado.
The district estimates the fire burned as much as 94% of the Willow Creek watershed, 90% of the area drained by Stillwater Creek, 29% of the Colorado River drainage above Shadow Mountain Reservoir and 42% of the North Inlet watershed. A more detailed assessment will be needed in the spring after snow has melted, Strahla said.
“It’s not as bad as Hayman, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bad,” Strahla said, referring to the 138,000-acre fire in 2002 that was the largest forest fire in Colorado’s recorded history until last year. In size, Hayman was eclipsed by the three Colorado fires in 2020: East Troublesome, Cameron Peak and Pine Gulch.
In assessing the damages caused by the East Troublesome Fire, resource specialists estimated 5% of the soil suffered high severity, 48% of it moderate severity and 37% of it low severity burns. Within the fire perimeter, 10% of the land was unburned.
The mapping for the 22,668 acres of the East Troublesome Fire within Rocky Mountain National Park has not yet been released.
Soil in severely burned areas has lost its structure, as the fire burned the forest litter and duff, weakening the roots of trees and other material that hold soil together.
Areas of severe damage include the basin drained by the east fork of Troublesome Creek, where the fire was first reported Oct. 14. There, the fire hunkered down, moving slowly but burning most everything. Other notable severe burn areas are near Willow Creek Pass, between Granby and Walden, and a gulch immediately north of Windy Gap Reservoir. Some areas near Grand Lake burned with surprising severity.
Erosion in high or moderate soil burn areas depends on the specific characteristics, such as the slope and soil texture, of each area, according to the burn report.
Watching the water
Impacts to drinking water in Grand County will vary. Well owners generally should have no problems with the debris.
“These folks will want to make sure that wellheads and components are not damaged, to test for coliform bacteria before drinking the water post-fire and to treat it if necessary,” said Katherine Morris, water-quality specialist for Grand County. “If a well is located in an area known to be down-gradient from an area where homes burned, it may be prudent to ensure that your water treatment is adequate.”
At Grand Lake, the town draws water from 80-foot wells.
“We have not seen anything yet,” said Dave Johnson, the water superintendent for Grand Lake. He said he doesn’t expect problems but that the water will continue to be monitored, as it has been.
But Grand Lake’s microhydro plant could have problems. Located on Tonohutu Creek, the small plant constantly generates 5 kilowatts of electricity used in treating the town’s domestic water.
“We can only filter out so much debris before we have to close the intake,” Johnson said.
In that case, the water treatment plant will be operated solely by electricity from Mountain Parks Electric.
Hot Sulphur Springs, which draws water from wells that tap the river aquifer, will be the only town in Grand County with municipal water supplies directly impacted by the fire. Kremmling also can tap the Colorado River, but it does so only in emergencies.
Hot Sulphur Springs Mayor Bob McVay said his town expects challenges when the snow melts this spring, producing ash-laden water and debris. The town already has set out to take precautions, but it’s not yet clear what will be required.
Upgrading of the filters in the town’s water treatment plant, a project that began a year ago, probably will be completed in January, providing duplicate filtering systems. But that might not be enough. Secondary wells in the groundwater along the river remain an option.
In Troublesome Valley, Whitmer hopes to consult the expertise of the Natural Resources Conservation Service about how to mitigate effects of the fire on the irrigation ditch. He also wonders whether beaver dams in the East Fork will trap at least some sediment.
For Northern Water, this was just one of several fires affecting its operations in 2020. It was impacted by fires on both sides of the Continental Divide, including the Cameron Peak Fire, the state’s largest wildfire, which affected the Poudre River and other creeks and drainages.
Strahla said managers attempt to prepare for wildfire and other contingencies, but they did not prepare for such a severe wildfire season.
“If you had come to us with a scenario that there is wildfire burning above Grand Lake, above Estes Park and throughout the Poudre River Basin, we probably would have pushed back, thinking that’s a little too over the top,” he said.
Aspen Journalism is a nonprofit, investigative news organization that covers water and rivers in collaboration with the Summit Daily News and other Swift Communications newspapers. Their water desk is funded in part by the Catena Foundation. For more, go to AspenJournalism.org.
Free support sessions available to those impacted by East Troublesome Fire
Mind Springs Health is offering free support sessions to community members impacted by the East Troublesome Fire.
Granby’s clinic will have group support sessions via Zoom at 7 p.m. Wednesdays facilitated by Dr. Lance Howe, in addition to the option for private support sessions.
Individuals and families can schedule up to five private sessions with Mind Springs Health by calling the Granby office at 970-887-2179. Due to COVID-19 protocols, the sessions will be virtual or over the phone.
“Our community is strong and resilient, we’ve seen this first hand from the very first few hours of the East Troublesome Fire,” said Makena Line, Program Director of the Mind Springs Health Granby office. “However, even the strongest among us, our first responders, teachers, community leaders, parents, can be experiencing emotions and feelings that they are not quite sure how to process.”
For group sessions, the Zoom Meeting ID is 870 892 7734 or call in at 971-247-1195.
“It can help to talk these feelings through with someone, while learning some coping skills,” Line explained.
The free sessions were funded through the Grand Foundation’s Wildfire Emergency Fund.
Rocky faces long road to recovery from East Troublesome Fire
With more than 27 square miles of Rocky Mountain National Park burned on the western side alone, recovery efforts for the iconic landmark will be extensive.
Chief of Resource Stewardship Koren Nydick outlined the park’s plan for emergency stabilization and burned area rehabilitation to Grand County commissioners on Tuesday. The plan covered impacts like trail and road management, vegetation and wildlife, watershed concerns and cultural resources.
The East Troublesome Fire burned 31 miles of trails on the western side of the Rocky, known as the Colorado River District or Grand Lake’s backyard. Eighteen campsites and 13.5 miles worth of roads were also in the burn area.
Additionally, Rocky lost a number of structures with most on the western side, including historical buildings and park housing. Some of the initial work will be mitigating those hazards.
Rebuilding the extensive trail system is a two-step process, the first being to remove hazard and fallen trees. Second, the wooden structures that “hold” trails in place have to be replaced.
“The real concern, especially with the trails, (is) if we don’t stabilize them we could lose the trail infrastructure because the erosion control structures burnt out,” Nydick explained.
A number of wooden bridges were also destroyed and only the key ones will be replaced immediately. That means when trails reopen, hikers may have to cross certain creeks without bridges.
Watershed impacts are a behemoth of their own. Rocky was able to model a severe, one-hour rainstorm over the burnt drainages in the park.
The Green Mountain basin saw some of the worst damage, and possible runoff and debris in a storm is exacerbated by its steepness.
“For this little watershed, we do expect some significant effects there where it crosses Trail Ridge Road,” Nydick said.
Peak flow for the Green Mountain basin is expected to see a nearly 2,000% change, while sediment delivery will increase by over 2,000%. The drainage goes toward Trail Ridge Road, which features a culvert from that creek.
Rocky has sought funding for a trap to catch the extra debris. Nydick added that the park may also have staff doing “storm patrol” to help with mitigation along Trail Ridge Road.
The Tonahutu watershed will also see significant change in flow and debris, though not to the same extent as the Green Mountain basin.
Certain bridges are low enough to warrant some worry in heavy storms near Grand Lake. Rocky is working with the town and the county to implement early warning systems for flooding.
“The sediment has been collecting on these hillsides for many, many years,” Nydick said. “With the fire and the runoff that comes with it, we’ll get increased sediment. But the story is not expected to be as bad as what you’ve heard in California … except for a couple places.”
Most of the fire damage to the Colorado River was on Forest Service or private land, so the park was not able to run models for those areas. Rocky is collaborating with Northern Water and other local groups on watershed impacts.
As for the vegetation in Rocky, there was some good news.
Nydick described images of trees bent over or even snapped by the wind, attesting to the major windstorm that accompanied the wildfire. While that meant that the East Troublesome Fire traveled at unprecedented speeds, there’s an unexpected benefit for the soil.
“One thing that we think (the wind) did, is it meant the fire moved quickly over the landscape, so the soils didn’t cook as much as if it stayed in one place for a long time,” Nydick said. “And, also, we got that snow on top which helped cool down the soil.”
Assessment teams have found that many roots remain intact and that the fire did not burn hot enough to destroy soil structure in most areas.
“The take home message is that … it just looks torched because we lost a lot of the aboveground vegetation,” Nydick said. “The trees are heavily charred. A lot of them are dead — not all though, we expect some will survive. But the soils are not telling the same story … and that is good news.”
The fire did burn down many of the willows and shrubs in the area. Nydick said some may sprout back up depending on the level of char and how much wildlife feeds on the new growth. Rocky hopes to restore wetlands in the Kawnueeche Valley in the long term.
As for wildlife, Nydick said there were some elk that were overrun by the fire and didn’t make it. Many of the moose in the park have previously been collared for observation, and it seems like most made it out of the fire based on that tracking.
Because Rocky has good data from past research efforts, the park will be able to study the effect of the burned forage habitat on the animals.
The park is also aware of fish kills on both sides, including a significant amount of trout. The fishery is expected to be impacted in the short term.
Rocky will be posting signs to warn visitors of the new hazards along the burn scar and seeking funding to mitigate the various impacts, focusing initially on safety.
The goal is to have most areas open by mid-summer once the trails are cleared and the park conducts a risk assessment. Nydick didn’t want to guarantee a date, but felt sure that more of Rocky would begin reopening through the summer.
Grand Lake HOA donates $65K for wildfire recovery
A small Grand Lake Homeowners Association raised over $65,000 for people impacted by the East Troublesome Fire and is encouraging other HOAs to contribute.
The Grand Lake HOA, which wishes to remain anonymous, consists of 12 homeowners who all donated money to either the Grand Foundation’s Wildfire Emergency Fund or a new fund for Grand Lake businesses.
On top of homeowners’ donations, the HOA pledged a 20% match from its general fund. In total, the neighborhood raised $65,400 for Grand Lake, according to DiAnn Butler, director of Grand County Economic Development.
The money was split with roughly two-thirds going to the Grand Foundation’s Wildfire Emergency Fund and the remaining funds going to Grand Lake businesses via the Grand Foundation.
In addition to donating, the anonymous HOA hopes to inspire others to do the same during the holiday season.
Donations can be made at GrandFoundation.com/donate.
New reports gauge severity of soil damage from East Troublesome, Williams Fork fires
The East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires scorched almost 200,000 acres across Grand County this summer and fall, and new assessments from the US Forest Service detail how badly the land was burned.
Soil burn severity maps cover a fire’s entire perimeter and serve as important reference tools that span multiple jurisdictions. For that reason, the Forest Service sees these maps — also known SBS maps — as one of the most valuable work products that a Burned Area Emergency Response assessment team can produce.
The new BAER assessments for the East Troublesome and Williams Fork fires were released on Thursday, along with the SBS maps for the two fires.
The assessments focus on post-fire threats to life and safety, property, natural resources, and cultural resources on national forest lands, along with offering some recommendations for how local, state and federal officials might mitigate the aftereffects.
The assessment teams do this by trying to determine soil burn severity and where post-fire snowmelt and precipitation events could lead to increased runoff, flooding, erosion, sediment delivery and heightened debris flows.
What is soil burn severity?
According to the Forest Service, the first step for identifying post-fire threats is to develop an SBS map documenting the degree to which soil properties have changed from fire.
Fire damaged soils can have low strength, high root mortality and increased erosion rates, especially as the severity of the fire damage worsens.
The SBS maps break the damage down into four classifications — high, moderate, low and unburned — decided by soil properties such as forest floor cover, ash color, integrity of roots and their structure, and water repellency.
Areas of low and unburned SBS have minimal effects to the soil, and therefore little to no noticeable impacts post-fire. At the same time, moderate SBS indicates that some soil properties have been affected with up to 80% of the duff and litter layer that absorbs precipitation like a sponge being consumed by flames.
On the extreme end, a high SBS shows significant alterations to the soil with the complete consumption of littler and duff, a loss of root viability and changes that can lead to increased erosion and runoff.
The East Troublesome
First reported Oct. 14 in the Arapaho National Forest, the East Troublesome spread over 10,000 acres in three days and became the largest blaze in Grand County history when the blaze exploded from 18,550 to 187,964 acres from Oct. 20-23. The cause is still under investigation.
Like many wildfires this summer and fall, the Troublesome blaze was fueled by widespread drought, dead and beetle-killed trees, high winds and poor overnight humidity recovery.
Its flames crossed Colorado Highway 125 on Oct. 21 and raced east into the Rocky Mountain National Park, jumping over the Continental Divide and reaching the western edge of Estes Park on Oct. 23.
Two teams from the Forest Service were required to complete the BAER assessment, and early season snowfall hampered their efforts and kept them from conducting a field survey in most of the burned area.
While the US Forest Service has created a SBS map for the entire fire outside Rocky Mountain National Park, the report notes that “a significant assessment workload of other critical Forest Service values remains and will be resumed in late spring 2021.”
According to the assessment, most of the land affected by the Troublesome fire falls under the jurisdiction of the National Forest Service with 132,916 acres of national forest burned.
However, more than 19,600 acres of private property also burned in the fire, and another 17,858 acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management were affected. The smallest portion of the burned area — 832 acres — is state-owned.
Interestingly, 37% of the land suffered only low SBS damage, 48% sustained moderate SBS and 5% saw high SBS. Only 10% of the land included in the East Troublesome Fire’s perimeter was characterized as unburned.
With an estimated 53% of the affected area seeing high or moderate SBS, there will be an increased potential for erosion and flooding, especially in areas with high SBS, according to the assessment.
The assessment also warns that areas that flood or had high debris flows pre-fire are likely to see larger magnitude events post-fire. Also, areas that occasionally flood or have debris flows could see more frequent events, and areas that previously did not have stream flow or debris flows may now flood or have debris flows.
The predicted erosion rates are not expected to affect long-term soil productivity, but increased erosion can result in downstream sediment delivery that bulks flows and increases flooding effects. Increased erosion can also block culverts and other infrastructure, and degrade water quality.
“This elevated post-fire response will gradually diminish as vegetation and groundcover levels recover each growing season, although some impacts including elevated snowmelt runoff are likely to persist for a decade or longer,” the report states, explaining that the degree of watershed response will be commensurate to the soil burn severity.
Williams Fork Fire
The final BAER assessment for the Williams Fork Fire was completed Oct. 2, though after its completion, the fire kicked back up and the perimeter grew on the northern and southern ends.
The Williams Fork Fire was fueled by exactly the same conditions that allowed the East Troublesome Fire to get so big so fast.
Overall, the assessment found an estimated 60% of the area within the Williams Fork Fire perimeter had high or moderate SBS.
“Increased erosion and flood flow potential are expected within and from these areas,” the report concluded, adding that the potential for erosion will be contingent on a variety of characteristics, such as soil texture, rock fragment content, slope and the soil burn severity and distribution.
With limited options for reducing post-fire peak stream flows, soil erosion and debris flows with either the Williams Fork Fire or the East Troublesome Fire, both assessments recommend focusing on mitigation measures to minimize threats to life and safety, and damage to property.
These measures could be road and trail closures, trail stabilization, campground treatments and warning signs.
Additional road and weed treatments, and other treatments to protect natural and cultural resources could be necessary during a follow up assessment that’s expected later in the spring or early summer.
Guest column: Fuel mitigation is the only way to combat forest fires
The East Troublesome Fire has been over for weeks now but its effects will be ongoing for years.
Much has been reported in the newspapers, online and in the media. Many good points have been made, charities given to those who lost homes, insurance claims submitted and plans for the future decided.
Some folks are going to leave. These are people who have been our friends or acquaintances. We will hate to see them go, but we can’t really blame them; they need to act in their own best interests.
The firestorm that happened on Oct. 21 was unusual in its speed and intensity. The scientists will be studying it for a long time. One firefighter told me he had never seen anything like it before, and he’d seen a lot of conflagrations.
The authorities, especially the firefighters, are to be commended. Grand Lake and the county came together with a lot of outside help. Lessons have been learned that may help again in the future, and hopefully any finger pointing will be kept to a minimum.
What the fire did to people near it could be compared to the “fog of war” where lines of communication are cut off and events happen very quickly. Misinformation reigns supreme during such a crisis, and even those on the scene can get it wrong due to panic, adrenaline, grief and outright fear. Some folks were told that their house were still there when they weren’t. The lucky ones, like myself, were told that their house burnt down when it hadn’t.
Many locals knew this place had to burn someday, and we were willing to take the risk of staying put. Anyone who lives in the Western mountains should be aware of this. After over 100 years of fire suppression, this place is loaded to the max with fuel.
My suggestion is simply this: Fuel reduction is our last hope for saving towns, houses, and public lands. There is much work to be done, and the best place to start is your immediate area. You should thank your lucky stars when you hear a chainsaw in your neck of the woods or see hard working folks burning slash when the snow is on the ground, chipping it or taking some trees to the mill.
It is dangerous, hard work. The joke among some of the firefighters during the Yellowstone fires was: “We should have been loggers.”
It’s that or the scorched earth and resulting erosion and watershed damage I am seeing out my backdoor. Sensible thinning would help.
Bruce Knight is a longtime resident of Grand Lake.
Grand Fire recognized with $10K grant from ADT
For its work battling the East Troublesome Fire, Grand Fire received a $10,000 grant from security company ADT.
On Thursday, Grand Fire officials accepted a check from Bob Tucker of ADT who came from the company’s headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida to deliver the money in person.
“The fire department sends a huge thank you to everyone at ADT Security Services,” said Grand Fire Assistant Chief Schelly Olson.
The fire department was one of only five chosen by ADT for the grant, which honored agencies that protected lives and property.
Olson added that the grant will be used for recruitment, retention and training for volunteer firefighters, noting this year she hopes to give the crew holiday bonuses.
Rocky reopens west side trails
After closing during the East Troublesome Fire, Rocky Mountain National Park has reopened the west side of the park from the Grand Lake entrance to the Colorado River Trailhead.
The East Troublesome Fire burned around 30,000 acres in Rocky, including a historic outpost.
Many areas in the park remain closed, including the North Inlet Trail, the Sun Valley Trail, the Harbison Picnic Area, the Green Mountain Trail and the Onahu Trail.
The Kawuneeche Visitor’s Center also remains closed until Dec. 19, though restroom facilities are available.
Open trails include Timber Lake, Colorado River, the Bowen-Baker Trail and the area north of the Coyote Valley Trailhead.
The east side of the park, which suffered less fire damage, also has trails and campgrounds available.
Park officials are asking visitors to the west side to not stop or park along US Highway 34 from the Grand Lake Entrance to the Onahu Trail, due to hazard trees along the road.
Trail Ridge Road has closed for the season.