East Troublesome Fire tested county’s emergency response
Local officials reflect, learn after facing devastating blaze
Surrounded by walls of flames, Grand County Sheriff’s Office deputies fanned out across the US Highway 34 and Colorado Highway 125 corridors to evacuate about 4,000 people from East Troublesome Fire on Oct. 21, 2020.
The slow and methodical evacuation plans went up in smoke that night when the Troublesome fire surpassed the worst expectations and grew almost 100,000 acres in 24 hours.
At 6:20 p.m. on Oct. 21 the fire was mapped at 38,495 acres. By 6:30 p.m., a chain of evacuation orders started to go out — first for the Trail Creek Subdivision — and then, about an hour later, the entire US 34 corridor was forced to evacuate.
“The thing that caught us off guard is the speed; (the fire) just outran us,” Sheriff Brett Schroetlin recalled. “When you’re in something like that, you’re making as much contact with as many people as you possibly can in the quickest possible time.”
Ultimately, the evacuation efforts would save countless lives. Schroetlin credited strong relationships among first-responders and with the community as critical during the evacuation effort.
Schroetlin said that the origin of the fire, which has been determined to be human-caused, is still under active investigation, and the sheriff’s office is assisting the US Forest Service with the case.
“This is a complex investigation,” he said.
Coming out of the disaster, the sheriff’s office conducted a performance review on the incident and identified ways to improve their response, including creating a countywide evacuation map for emergencies going forward. Communicating the same map to all the responding agencies and the community provides a mutual understanding and language when emergencies do occur, which can save precious time under pressure.
“That way we’re not having to create these areas and polygons as the incident develops,” Schroetlin said. “Also, when we reference an area, the community knows where it is — all of (the first-responders) know where it is — so it speeds up our efficiency during evacuations.”
Working in a close partnership with the sheriff’s office during and after a disaster is the county’s Office of Emergency Management. Once the Troublesome fire was quelled, the OEM performed a damage assessment and applied for recovery funding from a variety of sources.
“There’s a coordination that the office provides because we can’t just go out and fix everything,” said Emergency Manager Joel Cochran, highlighting the work of the Grand Foundation and the volunteers who helped clean up debris.
Over more than 6,500 hours, 142 volunteers from the Southern Baptist group cleared debris from 83 sites.
Though the fire spread across 188,910 acres in Grand County, only a small portion of the area is county-controlled with the majority of the burn on federal lands and private property. Luckily, Cochran said much of the county’s infrastructure wasn’t damaged.
The county’s recovery efforts include clearing trees, supporting the Emergency Watershed Program to mulch and reseed key areas, installing rain gauges for flood warnings and communicating recovery information.
There is still plenty of work to do with thousands more trees needing clearing and ongoing landscape monitoring for flood danger. Additionally, there are a handful of structures on private properties that still need to be cleaned up.
“There are maybe 50 homes that still haven’t had their ash debris and things like that removed, so we’ll focus on that a lot next year,” Cochran said. “I think we’ve made some really big strides and I think we’re working on stabilizing some of the landscape risks.”
Though disasters have few silver linings, the response to the East Troublesome will help prepare the county for future fires and floods, both physically and mentally.
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