How Grand Lake Fire moved forward from Troublesome blaze

After the East Troublesome Fire nearly burned down the town and took two lives along with hundreds of homes, Grand Lake Fire faced a hard year navigating healing along with a change in leadership and financial hardship. The fire chief credited the unity of the community with helping his crew get back on their feet.
Robert Mendoza/For the Sky-Hi News

The 56 hours when the East Troublesome Fire exploded across Grand County was a dark time for firefighters.

That Wednesday, smoke blocked out all light except for the red, threatening glow of flames. It wasn’t just the night that was dark. The fire burned down home after home and took two lives with it.

The hardest part for firefighters may have been leaving buildings to burn in order to save others.

“My firefighters were literally just having to drive past homes that were on fire because there was nothing we could do — or that’s time wasted when I could save this home,” Grand Lake Fire Chief Seth St. Germain remembered.

With 500 structures destroyed in what felt like hours, the loss was incomprehensible for those tasked with keeping Grand County safe. The guilt was pervasive, even if East Troublesome was something no one could stop.

“That would’ve been trying to stop a nuclear explosion with a squirt gun,” St. Germain said. “It just wasn’t happening.

“We had to get out of the way, let it do what it was going to do, and then come back in behind it and save what we could save. Even that was — that was just a complete nightmare for everybody.”

As St. Germain put it, the firefighters got 20 years of experience in those 56 hours.

Seth St. Germain

Immediately after the fire, a group came in and offered counseling to the Grand Lake firefighters. Some took advantage of it. Some didn’t.

At the time, St. Germain was assistant fire chief for the small agency tasked with covering 105 square miles in and around Grand Lake. He served as interim chief from December to June before taking over the role permanently.

Along with the lingering trauma of such an event, Grand Lake Fire has spent the last year navigating a change in leadership and financial challenges worsened by the damage inflicted by East Troublesome.

When things had finally slowed down in December, St. Germain held a special dinner to bring his crew together. Over drinks, the fire department had a chance to give thanks for all the blessings they still had.

St. Germain didn’t want to focus on the bad. Instead, he made sure everyone was OK, that their needs were taken care of and jumped right back into it.

“Some chief officers would call it a distraction and not deal with the injury, if you will, or the trauma,” he said. “But I think it was an opportunity to heal, count our blessings and get back to work.”

St. Germain has been with Grand Lake Fire since March 2019, serving as a shift captain in southern Colorado for 12 years prior. The last major fire he saw before moving to Grand Lake was the 416 Fire, which burned near Durango.

The 57,000-acre wildfire devastated the local tourism industry in 2018 and was followed by a lot of finger-pointing, according to St. Germain. Subdivisions fought over neighbors they thought hadn’t done enough mitigation work. The railroad company — one of the major employers in the area — was blamed for causing the fire and ended up in a lawsuit. Many people took sides.

The quarreling hurt the community all over again, and St. Germain said he worried that might happen again in Grand County.

“The community suffered in multiple different ways because nobody looked at the grand scheme of things,” St. Germain said of the 416 Fire’s aftermath. “It didn’t happen here.”

Grand Lake firefighters and other volunteers help clean up part of the Winding River Ranch property in May as part of a community clean up day. In the year since the East Troublesome Fire, Grand Lake Fire has found healing in getting back to work and helping out the community.
Amy Golden/Sky-Hi News

Rather than falling apart, St. Germain saw relationships with other emergency response agencies grow stronger. He said the relationship between Grand Lake Fire and the county’s four other fire districts, the sheriff’s office, emergency medical services, and search and rescue are the best they’ve ever been.

St. Germain thought that seeing people from all reaches of Grand County come to the area and pitch in with the rebuilding effort helped foster that sense of community. The partnerships that emerged following the tragedy were like nothing he’d ever seen, and it kept people here.

“Folks who lost their home, the majority of them are rebuilding,” St. Germain said. “They’re not leaving. They’re staying here. That’s a nice anchor for the guys and myself, to see that instead of everyone just leaving.”

Instead of blame, St. Germain wants to focus on lessons learned. Grand Lake Fire and the other agencies put together a meeting in May to help the community understand the fire response.

Grand County fire departments are further investing in community education and partnering up to try to be more effective. St. Germain also hopes people will take fire mitigation more seriously on their properties, as fire departments help to educate locals and visitors.

If another major fire were to happen again — with all that St. Germain knows now — there are a couple things he will do differently. Federal firefighting resources continue to struggle with funding and, in an ideal world, those agencies would be fully staffed and able to finance more air resources.

The state was in a fire ban last October, but St. Germain wishes that the consequences were more severe for starting a fire as a way to dissuade human-caused blazes. Most of all, he hopes strong agency partnerships remain in place because that helped save Grand Lake.

Before the East Troublesome Fire, St. Germain said he could probably count the number of times he had been personally thanked as a firefighter on his hand. An outpouring of support came to Grand Lake Fire this last year, though.

“People who had lost everything were still in my office saying, ‘Thank you. I want to meet the crew. I want to thank them. I want to shake their hands,'” St. Germain said. “It was very moving. That still tries to bring me to tears every time I think of it.”

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