Losses in East Troublesome Fire enormous, still mounting

The Samuelsons survey the damage to the Troublesome Basin, where their outfitting company is based. Two longtime outfitters were hard hit in the East Troublesome Fire along with hundreds of homes. As the fire damage comes into focus, it's clear the losses will be far reaching.
Courtesy Richard Samuelson

One of the most destructive fires in Colorado history has subsided, but the rebuilding efforts for Grand County are just beginning.

Formal damage assessments for structures in the county have been completed after the East Troublesome Fire scorched through nearly 200,000 acres in northern Grand County. According to those reports, 555 structures were destroyed, nine buildings suffered major damage and 34 sustained minor damage.

Among the buildings destroyed, 366 were residential and 189 were outbuildings. More than 200 were people’s primary residences.

Losing such a large number of homes in a county that’s already facing a critical housing shortage has been pressing on local officials’ minds. For Sheena Darland, operations manager for the Grand County Housing Authority, it’s painful to see the added strain.

“It’s almost like a sucker punch to the stomach,” she said. “It just makes you sick to think we already had a housing crisis going on and now our community is uprooted.”

Two surveys went out — one to evacuees and one to homeowners — to begin connecting those in need of a place to stay with those willing to lease out their home. Darland said more than 190 homeowners signed up to offer their houses to the roughly 50 families who responded needing some sort of housing.

However, many of these homes are only available through the spring. Darland and the county are working with community partners like Snow Mountain Ranch and Sun Communities to find a longer-term solution while seeking funding from state and federal sources.

Unfortunately, these solutions will take time.

“These people are not going to be able to rebuild overnight,” Darland said. “It’s going to be a long haul. And how do we keep them here?”

The East Troublesome Fire destroyed two of the camps operated by the Samuelson Outfitters. The family business still doesn’t know if it will be able to operate next season.
Courtesy Richard Samuelson

Scorched Livelihoods

Ten buildings belonging to businesses were also destroyed in the fire.

That includes buildings at C Lazy U Ranch, Winding River Ranch and Highland Marina. Two longtime outfitters in the area — Dave Parri’s Outfitting & Guide Service and Samuelson Outfitters — have also suffered heavy losses.

Three generations of the Samuelson family have operated in the Troublesome Basin for more than half a century. Cathy Samuelson and her husband Richard “Sambo” Samuelson lost most of the 2020 hunting season because of the fire and two of their camps were destroyed. Two employees lost their homes in the fire as well.

“It was just so overwhelming,” Cathy Samuelson said, reflecting on the loss. “I consider the basin a backyard and took care of it like it was my own.”

Samuelson is still waiting on a decision from the Forest Service on whether the area will be open to permitted outfitters next season. Until then, they cannot accept the deposits that usually help pay the bills.

Many buildings lost in the fire were insured, but some damages are more difficult to measure. Insurance and financial aid has been a struggle because the Samuelsons lost no physical, brick-and-mortar structures in the fire. That makes receiving aid difficult while their insurance company is saying many of their tangible losses are not covered.

Samuelson highlighted the deep ties both outfitters have in the community along with the business hunting brings into the county during off seasons.

“(We) have been outfitting and supporting the community for years,” she said. “Especially during the slow time of year, hunting is such a huge financial impact to this community. Its loss is trickle-down, a domino effect. It affects the lodging, the restaurants and those people that work for those businesses. There’s a huge impact.”

Acreage-wise, the fire burned almost 15% of the land in Grand County. With tourism and recreation being Grand’s primary economic driver, the burn scar over public lands — spanning Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service and Rocky Mountain National Park — could hamper tourism for years to come.

The county said many ranches have reported a significant or total loss of hay intended for winter feeding of livestock. Damages and impacts associated with agricultural land and operations are ongoing.

The burned lands incorporated significant grazing leases held by local producers, and impacts to agriculture irrigation supply and delivery are being assessed.

Samuelson Outfitters and many other property owners are working to clean up the debris left by the East Troublesome Fire, but the costs to do so will be high.
Richard Samuelson/Courtesy photo

Price tags

As for the costs to local agencies, the numbers are approximate but expensive.

In a letter to the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the estimated costs of the county’s response has been roughly $352,000 as of Nov. 12. Those expenses include $80,000 for staff, logistics and emergency protective actions in the Office of Emergency Management; $150,000 for evacuations and emergency protective actions for the Grand County Sheriff; and $76,000 in overtime for county government employees.

One of the biggest concerns for the county is the fact that departments have reached their capacities.

“Grand County is not a large county in terms of population and overall budget; nor does it have depth within departments and emergency management,” county commissioners wrote in the letter to the state. “Grand County has been responding to multiple fires for almost three months, leading to staff shortages, increased overtime and costs associated with necessary and required resources.”

Before the East Troublesome Fire, the county had been battling the nearly 15,000-acre Williams Fork Fire for over a month. Other fires the county responded to during this dry year included the Dice Hill Fire just on the other side of the Summit County line and the Deep Creek Fire outside Kremmling.

Debris removal from the East Troublesome Fire will likely be too much for the county to handle alone. Grand has estimated that debris could exceed over 30,000 cubic yards and cost more than $27 million to haul off.

County officials have reported that underinsured or uninsured homeowners have been reaching out asking for assistance with debris removal.

“The debris management costs can be upward of $50,000 to remove the debris for one single home,” County Manager Kate McIntire explained. “I’ve heard that some families are only covered (by insurance) for debris management at $5,000.”

Water’s depths

Various watersheds hit by the fire — including the Poudre River, North Fork of the Big Thompson River, North Fork Colorado River, Three Lakes, Willow Creek and the East Troublesome Creek — are expected to feel the effects for a long time.

These impacts will reach far beyond Grand County, which supplies water to major cities on the northern Front Range. Northern Water provides water to more than a million people, which is equal to 615,000 irrigated acres in northern Colorado.

“Sedimentation, debris flows and water contamination will threaten drinking water supplies for years to come,” the commissioners said.

Other environmental impacts like erosion and forest health are only just beginning to be evaluated.

Hazard tree removal is another concern, as fire damage has made many trees in the burn area a falling hazard. The Colorado State Forester estimates over 1,000 trees will need to be removed in county right of ways.

To give an idea of the extent of damage, the Colorado Department of Transportation had to cut more than 850 hazard trees along the burned area of Colorado Highway 125 before the road could reopen.

Because the task ahead is so massive, the county has requested continued assistance and assessment regarding debris removal and management from the state.

Impacted utility companies are also asking the state for assistance, including Northern Water, Three Lakes Water and Sanitation District, Mountain Parks Electric and Xcel Energy.

Estimates peg the overall damage from the fire at nearly $200 million. That amount could go up as the aftermath grows clearer.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the letter was sent to the Colorado Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

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