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Grand County’s response to adversity top story of 2020

From left, Assistant General Manager Paul Klees, Equestrian Director Ami Cullen and Chief Engineer Dave Christman work to get about 200 horses onto trailers at the C Lazy U Ranch before the East Troublesome Fire overtook the property. How the community banded together during great adversity was repeatedly the top story of 2020.
Eli Pace / epace@skyhinews.com

The editorial staff of the Sky-Hi News has identified 10 stories that we think are the biggest, most impactful, interesting or important stories of the year.

We tried to make our selections based on widely accepted news values — things like a story’s impact, human interest, conflict, proximity and prominence — as we poured over the newspaper’s pages from the last year.

In the clips, we tried to identify common themes, capture major moments and handpick “10 stories” that we think helped define 2020 for Grand County. Not all are easy to read, and many were difficult to cover, but many were uplifting too.



If there’s one thing we can say about the last year, it’s that through the tragedy and triumph, the heartbreak and heroics, we sought to tell Grand County’s stories, and these are the ones we think stuck out.

 

1. Grand County Strong: Residents won’t lie down in the face of adversity

During lockdown, photographers in the county started a creative project to photograph people on their front steps. The Birch family photo was a favorite in the community.
Courtesy Jennifer Bauckman

We heard it so many times in 2020 that “Grand Strong” started to sound like a cliché or a generic, tired slogan that could be duplicated across a hundred cities and towns anywhere across the country.



But the actions behind these words were anything but empty in Grand, especially this year. From one headline to the next, over and over again, the way the county responded in the face of unrelenting adversity became the year’s top story.

Students and teachers missed school, businesses struggled mightily and first responders fought and fought and fought, as everyone in Grand County tried their best to navigate a year unlike any other.

Throughout it all, Grand pulled together.

Across the county, people fought back against fire and disease, as they worked to aid struggling families, support hurting businesses and give their neighbors a fighting chance. The stories are more numerous than could fit in this short recap, but that’s not going to stop us from rattling off a long list of them.

The creativity of locals shined as people found ways to come together while being socially distanced, including parade birthday parties and front porch photoshoots.

As Grand County and the world adjusted to the grim reality of COVID-19, light shined through as local governments donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to support people and businesses in need.

Individual donors took those funds into the millions, and local manpower came together in volunteer efforts like the Outbreak of Kindness, spawned through a sense of togetherness and a need to help.

Businesses got in on the action too with pivots and by adjusting services. Grocery stores shifted shopping hours for high-risk customers, and Fraser Valley Distillery started making hand sanitizer for first responders, just to name a few of the many restaurants and community organizations that stepped up in 2020.

Others provided free meals during the COVID-19 shutdown and throughout the holidays. Some of those restaurants, like Carver’s Bakery Cafe, even continued to feed people at no charge during the onset of the pandemic. For many people, the effort gave them a small bite of normalcy.

In local schools, teachers utilized 3D printers to make face masks this spring. This summer, amid a year that was wiped out by COVID-19, the classes of 2020 celebrated their graduation in unique ceremonies, which were sweet, heartfelt and draped in COVID-19 guidelines.

Kayla Davis rides with the Middle Park High School Class of 2020 for a graduation ceremony that featured a golf cart parade through Granby. While the seniors missed out on a lot of traditions associated with the end of high school, they experienced an unforgettable graduation.
Amy Golden / agolden@skyhinews.com

The graduates’ teachers and classmates returned to the classrooms in the fall to a brand new learning environment, where the struggles and ensuing responses have continued throughout the fall and winter.

With the destruction of the East Troublesome Fire, the commitment to rebuild Grand from the ground up has only grown more steadfast. Days before the fire’s massive run on Oct. 21, the community gathered with a line of trailers to help evacuate the historic C Lazy U Ranch and its 200 livestock.

Then, almost as soon as US Highway 34 and CO Highway 125 were evacuated, assistance centers saw a flood of donations and volunteers hoping to help with food, clothing, household items, money and more.

Several first responders on the East Troublesome Fire lost their homes in the flames, leading to efforts focused on helping those who fought to save life and property.

The Grand Foundation created a fund specifically for fire recovery efforts. So far, over $2.5 million has been raised.

Meanwhile, county residents have offered up their homes for those who had theirs lost or damaged in the fire. Even before the evacuation orders were lifted, local contractors teamed up with the sheriff’s office to ensure pipes wouldn’t freeze in the fire-affected areas.

In the last month, a massive multi-agency effort combined with grassroots volunteerism might have saved Grand Lake’s snowmobiling season, which is great news for many local businesses considering how much rides on snowmobiling tourism.

The story about how Grand County will respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating wildfire season will continue to be told for a long time to come, but there was no single story that better defined the community than how people repeatedly responded to 2020.

Authorities direct traffic at US Highway 34 and US 40 as residents flee the East Troublesome Fire on Oct. 21.
Eli Pace / epace@skyhinews.com

2. East Troublesome Fire burns 100,000 acres in 24 hours

The summer was hot and dry in Grand, but no one could have imagined the widespread destruction the fall would bring.

The Williams Fork Fire broke out in mid-August and would take months to contain. The fire in southern Grand County, later determined to be human-caused, broke out near the Henderson Mill and threatened nearby ranches and the Fraser Experimental Forest.

The fire would burn 14,333 acres altogether. Other small blazes broke out in Grand through the late summer drought, but that would be nothing compared to what would come in October.

The East Troublesome Fire began Oct. 14 near Parshall, sparking immediate evacuations for the nearby neighborhoods. For the first week, crews were able to keep the fire under 20,000 acres through the dry and windy weather. Smoke blew over Grand Lake, darkening the skies with its threatening plume as the blaze raged westward.

On Oct. 21, the East Troublesome Fire jumped Highway 125. All of Grand Lake was evacuated and two longtime residents lost their lives.

In just 24 hours, the East Troublesome Fire scorched over 100,000 acres in a historic event that turned the eyes of the country to Grand County’s small community. Hundreds of homes and long-standing businesses burned to the ground.

In a matter of days, it would grow to be the second largest fire in Colorado history. Chaos reigned as firefighters battled the inferno. Granby and Hot Sulphur Springs were placed under pre-evacutation orders, as thousands who were already evacuated wondered what had happened to their homes.

The fire continued west, jumping the Continental Divide and threatening Estes Park. Firefighters were able to take their first breath of relief when the snow finally fell on Oct. 25.

Slowly, families returned to their homes or what was left. The community saw the blackened landscape and the scope of Grand’s loss started to come into focus.

The East Troublesome Fire was declared 100% contained on Dec. 2. Even so, the rebuilding efforts for Grand will take years.With longtime locals having lost their homes and well established businesses required to rebuild, the economic losses will be harsh.

Rocky Mountain National Park and the Arapaho National Forest were also hard hit in the fire, not to mention the ecological and aquatic damage of which experts are only just beginning to measure the magnitude.

A foundation and chimney are all that remain of this home that was destroyed in the East Troublesome Fire. More than 500 buildings were lost in the fire, the majority of which were homes.
Eli Pace / epace@skyhinews.com

3. COVID-19 cripples Grand

No one batted an eye as spring break visitors flocked to the county in early March for unmasked recreation, but that would soon fade away as the month ended in a lockdown.

In mid-March, businesses were shut down along with the schools and the ski resorts. In a matter of days, Grand had gone from a spring break destination to a virtual ghost town.

The first confirmed COVID-19 case in Grand County came on St. Patrick’s Day. Even though folks were being encouraged to spend time outside, Rocky Mountain National Park shut down in an unprecedented move that would happen more than once in 2020.

Middle Park High School teacher Carrie Ann Mathis prepared to return to in-person learning in August with creative protective gear.
McKenna Harford / mharford@skyhinews.com

Winter Park Resort, the largest employer in the county, announced large layoffs. Unemployment spiked and Grand saw nearly one in five workers unemployed at the peak of joblessness.

As summer approached, some local towns began requiring mask wearing. The county commissioners voted against a mask mandate, but face coverings became required across Colorado when Gov. Jared Polis mandated it days later.

Rocky Mountain National Park opened back up to the relief of locals, though the reopening was tempered by the fact that the park would require reservations and timed entries.

Grand faced an uncertain season, but the county instead saw one of its busiest summers. Though favorite summer activities like Fourth of July fireworks and parades were either adjusted or canceled, floods of tourists helped local businesses recover from the shutdown.

Both East and West Grand school districts spent the summer preparing for a return to in-person learning. While teachers and students wanted to get back to school, precautions including mask wearing and cohorts were meant to stop the spread of COVID in the classroom.

As fall began, Grand saw a spike in COVID-19 cases along with the rest of the state. Mixed with the additional spread of COVID during the East Troublesome Fire, the county saw an onslaught of outbreaks and the first local death caused by the coronavirus.

The battle to keep case numbers down was accelerated by the upcoming ski season, and doing so would take sacrifice. Most schools shut down again and businesses saw increased restrictions in an effort to reduce case numbers.

Public Health Director Brene Belew-LaDue gives the first vaccine in the county to Public Health Medical Director Darcy Selenke on Dec. 23.
McKenna Harford / mharford@skyhinews.com

Winter Park’s season was delayed due to a combination of the fire, the pandemic and lack of snow, but the resort opened to major crowds, which required a reworking of the resort’s COVID precautions. Granby Ranch opened a few days later.

COVID-19 numbers have seen a downward trend in Grand since their peak, and officials hope Grand will continue to operate without a major increase after the holidays.

Grand ended 2020 on a hopeful note as the Moderna vaccine made its way into the county. County health care workers and those in assisted living received the first 400 doses of the vaccine just in time for Christmas.

4. Granby Ranch foreclosure

Granby Ranch began 2020 facing foreclosure proceedings and, following a rocky transition and a complex foreclosure sale, ended it under new management. The resort opened for the season Dec. 11.
Robert Mendoza / rmendoza@skyhinews.com

Granby Ranch began the year with a foreclosure. The ski resort came bundled in layers of legal agreements and contracts from more than two decades of deal brokering by the Cipriani family.

The messy foreclosure proceedings led to the announcement of new management for the ski and golf resort: Ridgeline Executive Group. Things were further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The resort, missing the most profitable time of year, had to lay off almost all of its employees. Through virtual meetings for Headwaters Metropolitan District, the group that contracts out the operations at Granby Ranch, Ridgeline and the resort’s outgoing owners attempted to work out a transition, which did not go smoothly.

In May, the outgoing management announced it would be walking away just as summer began. Headwaters was able to hire a contractor to manage the golf operations as the summertime foreclosure sales for the resort approached.

After multiple delays, the five parcels related to the complex foreclosure finally went to the lender. But things were just starting for Granby Ranch homeowners as the new owners began undoing longstanding agreements.

Following COVID-19 precautions, Granby Ranch opened for the season Dec. 11 offering a number of new and community based events under its new management, including a visit from the world-class alpine skier Bode Miller this week.

 

5. East Grand passes mill levy

East Grand teachers grab information and flyers on Ballot Issue 4A, which asked voters to increase taxes by $1 million for teacher and staff pay and retention. The measure passed by large margins.
Amy Golden / agolden@skyhinews.com

The 2020 election made national news, but the biggest issue on local ballots was a proposed tax increase to boost schools.

The East Grand School District asked voters to raise taxes by $1 million to provide funds to attract and retain quality teachers and staff through a mill levy override. And voters in the district encompassing Granby, Grand Lake, Winter Park, Fraser and Hot Sulphur Springs overwhelmingly said yes.

More than 60% of the district voted in favor of the mill levy increase, which will be included in the school budget for the 2021-2022 school year.

East Grand has navigated a school year like no other in 2020, abruptly moving to remote learning in March and then shutting down for a week in October as teachers and students were displaced by the East Troublesome Fire.

With the uncertainties of next year’s economy, the $1 million funding increase will help schools hang on to quality staff and teachers even if state funding for the district is cut. The hope is to eventually increase salaries, which are below the state average for teachers in a district with one of the highest costs of living in Colorado.

The school district said it plans to work with teachers to make the best decisions for the upcoming budgets.

 

6. Turnover in the high country

Agencies across the county saw turnover in nine leadership positions. In chronological order, that included the Grand County EMS, Kremmling police, Grand County treasurer, Grand County emergency manager, Fraser’s town manager, Grand County’s manager, Grand County Public Health, Grand Lake Fire Department and Granby Police Department.
Graphic by Amy Golden / agolden@skyhinews.com

Leadership positions held by longtime officials in the community, along with some newer hires, saw a large amount of turnover in 2020, culminating with the departure of four major heads in December alone.

January began with the smooth exit of Grand EMS Chief Ray Jennings, who retired from his position after 16 years before Robert Good was selected as the new chief.

Across the county, Kremmling Police Chief Jamie Lucas began the year on administrative leave. After charges were filed against him by the District Attorney’s office, the Kremmling town board chose not to reappoint him to the role in April. The board chose Hiram Rivera as the new Kremmling police chief in September.

The next major departure in Grand County came from an elected official, Grand County Treasurer Christina Whitmer, who announced her resignation after holding the job for 30 years. Deputy Treasurer Terri Tanton took over the role until the November election, which ushered Frank DeLay into office.

Still, the changes were just beginning. Grand County Emergency Manager Kat Conrad resigned in late September after holding the position for less than a year. The county acted quickly in the face of multiple emergencies to hire a replacement. Joel Cochran, a former undersheriff for Summit County, began as emergency manager just over a month later.

That same month, Fraser Town Manager Jeff Durbin announced his resignation after 16 years working for the town. Fraser has tapped the former town manager of Firestone, Wesley LaVanchy, to serve as interim town manager until a permanent manager is hired.

December kicked off a flurry of additional departures from major leadership positions.

The Grand commissioners ended their contract with County Manager Kate McIntire during a special meeting in early December. The commissioners would not cite specific reasoning for terminating the contract beyond “personnel issues” and voted 2-1 in favor.

Assistant County Manager Ed Moyer was appointed acting county manager on Dec. 8. He will likely stay on through the start of this year.

Just a few days after the commissioners ended McIntire’s contract, Grand County Public Health Director Brene Belew-Ladue announced her resignation. Belew-LaDue told commissioners she was going to prioritize her physical and mental health after a difficult year with little support from the county commissioners.

Her last day is Jan. 15, and county officials have indicated that they are working to hire an internal candidate to the position.

The next week it was announced that Grand Lake Fire Chief Kevin Ratzmann had split ways with the fire department after being placed on administrative leave the month prior. The terms of the departure have not been disclosed, and Assistant Chief Seth St. Germain has stepped into the role of acting chief.

To end the year, Granby Police Chief Jim Kraker announced this week that he would be moving on from Granby. Kraker has been with Granby since the creation of its police department in 2005.

 

Former Kremmling police chief Jamie Lucas attends a Kremmling board meeting where town officials placed him on administrative leave in December 2019.
Eli Pace / epace@skyhinews.com

7. Former police chief charged

Of all the exits and ousted public officials across Grand County, one sticks out, partly because it involves an ex-police chief facing criminal charges.

Following an investigation into the actions of former Kremmling Police Chief Jamie Lucas, the 14th Judicial District Attorney charged him with several counts of official misconduct and lying to police.

On Jan. 31, the DA filed 15 charges against Lucas, alleging he mishandled an animal abuse case, in which three juveniles are alleged to have killed a cat on a property outside Kremmling town limits in October 2019.

Lucas is facing four counts each of first degree official misconduct, second degree official misconduct and official oppression, and three counts of false reporting to authorities.

All of the charges are misdemeanors with the exception of second degree official misconduct, which is a petty offense.

The Grand County Sheriff’s Office initiated the investigation into Lucas’ actions in December and the DA’s office requested it be completed by the Fraser Winter Park Police Department.

Kremmling’s town board placed Lucas on administrative leave on Dec. 20, 2019, before ultimately voting to not reappoint him to the position in April.

Lucas has maintained he is being targeted by the DA and that he investigated the animal abuse case with the permission of Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin.

Previously, Lucas confirmed he charged three juveniles with disturbing the peace on Nov. 5 and fined them $500 each through Kremmling’s municipal court system.

For each juvenile Lucas cited, he was charged with one count of first degree official misconduct, second degree official misconduct and official oppression, according to the complaint filed by the district attorney. Lucas also faces similar charges for a separate incident on Nov. 1.

The DA’s complaint says Lucas was charged with three counts of false reporting to authorities for statements he made to the Fraser Winter Park Police Department during its investigation.

After Lucas pleaded not guilty in May, a trial was originally scheduled for three days in October. Lucas’ attorney, Jeffrey Eidsness, also filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case or appoint a special prosecutor.

Though Judge Nicholas Catanzarite denied the request, the COVID-19 pandemic has since led to the trial being pushed twice, first to December and then to April 2021. The most recent filing from Lucas’ attorney indicates that a trial may not happen since plea negotiations are ongoing.

 

Grand Lake Fire had a turbulent year in 2020 with the department facing budget concerns, battling the East Troublesome Fire and seeing the departure of its chief.
Robert Mendoza / rmendoza@skyhinews.com

8. Fire department in the crosshairs

Perhaps no agency across Grand County faced more challenges in 2020 than the Grand Lake Fire Protection District, which fought off the budget ax, faced the largest fire in county history and saw the departure of its chief.

The department was thrust into headlines over the summer months when Grand Lake Fire’s board of directors identified problems with the department’s spending. In July, these concerns led the board to freeze spending, hold off on new hires and eliminate overtime.

Fears that firefighters might face salary cuts have not come to fruition, as the board has adamantly protected firefighters’ pay, but board members have kept a close eye on Grand Lake Fire’s finances ever since.

As the board continued to work its way through the budgetary issues, the department was hit with news that Melissa Ratzmann, wife to Chief Kevin Ratzmann and a public relations specialist at the fire department, suffered a fatal stroke in September.

Then in October the department was called upon like never before with the largest fire ever in Grand County bearing down on Grand Lake’s doorsteps.

Along with other first responders across the county and beyond, the firefighters at Grand Lake Fire have been credited for saving the town of Grand Lake and many homes in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But that wasn’t the end of the year for the department.

The board put Chief Ratzmann on paid administrative leave in November, and then confirmed in December that he was no longer working for the department.

 

Christopher T. Corcorran

9. County grapples with two murders

According to state statistics and newspaper archives, it’s been nine years since the last murder in Grand County, but in 2020 there were two.

In May, the discovery of a body in Jackson County prompted an investigation that revealed the man had been killed in Grand County. Christopher T. Corcorran, 33, is accused of killing 42-year-old Dustin Bryant of Wheat Ridge after meeting up with him on May 29. Corcorran’s arrest affidavit says he was the last person to see Bryant alive.

Bryant was found naked and stabbed three times off CO Highway 125. The coroner determined his cause of death to be a stab wound to the heart.

Corcorran was arrested on June 18 for a charge of first degree murder and has been held at the Grand County Jail without bond. He is scheduled to be in court on Jan. 14.

Months later, the Fraser Winter Park Police investigated a couple found dead in their Fraser apartment on Nov. 27. Police determined the couple, Kristin and Lucais Reilly, died in a murder-suicide.

Based on evidence from the investigation and autopsy results, it’s believed that Lucais shot Kristin before killing himself. No charges were brought in the situation.

 

The 4 Lazy J property sold for $6.2 million in January 2020.
Courtesy Realtor.com

10. Record sales tax and real estate sales

Real estate trends of pricey properties, surging demand and low inventory have driven Grand County’s market for yet another year, leading to historic housing sales.

It would prove to be one of a few industries that could thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A $6.2 million sale boosted the county’s early sales, but it would be the beginning of a trend of increased luxury sales. Through November, 93 units went for more than $1 million, compared to only 43 from the same period last year.

On average, single family homes sold for $792,134 from January to November, a nearly 30% increase over the same period in 2019. Condo sales have also increased to an average of $383,476 this year, up 11% over the same period in 2019.

Based on historic averages provided by the Land Title Guarantee Company, housing prices are the highest they have been in over a decade.

2020 is on track to have a historic high for gross sales volume as well. From January to September, there have been more than $607 million in recorded real estate sales across Grand County, according to the Land Title Guarantee Company.

In 2019, a total of over $715 million was sold, which is the current highest gross sales volume in Grand’s history based on data from the Land Title Guarantee Company.

As prices continue to skyrocket, inventory is increasingly low. Overall, from January through November, new listings are down 10% in 2020 compared to the previous year.

As for sales tax, Grand County and its towns prepared for the worst when the pandemic hit. Instead, much of Grand County saw its busiest summers as tourists flocked to the mountain.

In Granby, July was a record breaking month with sales tax exceeding half a million dollars for the first time ever. Even during the stay at home orders, Granby’s sales tax for March, April and May remained higher than the same months last year.

Then September blew July’s record out of the water, jumping by another $100,000. Ten months into the town’s fiscal year, sales tax revenue is up 30% compared to the same period for 2019.

Grand Lake also saw a huge increase in sales tax, though the town manager pointed out that brick and mortar restaurants and retail are actually down for the year.

This is because of a change last year that meant online retailers would have to pay sales tax to the jurisdiction the goods were shipped to, boosting local revenue.

With that in mind, Grand Lake is up $241,000 compared to the same time last year. Not including November and December, Grand Lake has already seen $40,000 more in revenue than all of 2019.

In Kremmling, August was up 24% compared to the same month last year at $131,989. The town’s total sales tax was up year to date as of August by nearly $150,000 or 22%.

In Winter Park, where the ski resort is directly tied to the town’s economy, the summer boost didn’t help quite as much. Sales tax is down for the town 11% year to date.

When the resort shut down, March’s revenue dropped 43% compared to the previous year and April decreased by a whopping 69%.

While the summer helped Winter Park to improve the drained revenue, it remains below the original hope for 2020. October — the most recent month of reporting — was up 20% for the town.

A screenshot from the Grand Lake osprey live stream shows the female osprey eating a fish while watching over her eggs in May. Tens of thousands of people tuned in to watch the live camera in 2020.
Courtesy Kent Roorda

Honorable mention — Grand Lake ospreys

If any family in Grand County rose above the uncertainty, angst and turbulence of 2020, it had to be a pair of ospreys in Grand Lake and their offspring, whose lives were broadcast this summer on a free live cam for all to see.

And watch we did.

The cam put up by Grand County local Kent Roorda and carried by the Sky-Hi News quickly became a favorite among our online audience, reaching people across the state, the US and beyond.

Throughout the summer, the live cam consistently finished among the newspaper’s most read stories in June, July and August with thousands logging on week after week to see the young birds grow under their parents’ guidance.

This year’s viewers were rewarded with a far different result than what they saw in 2019, when the two ospreys’ eggs languished unhatched while the parents kept tending to their nest.

No, this year was a happier sight with the two adult ospreys successfully bringing their three eggs to hatchings, and then raising the chicks to early adulthood, the whole time never knowing so many people were tuned into their everyday activities.

As if the nest needed a storyline, the two parents even appeared to adopt an orphaned bird late in the season, before the pair, their three now-grown chicks and the unlikely addition all flew south for the winter.

 


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