Learning from a megafire: Officials recap East Troublesome Fire and what it taught Grand County
When the East Troublesome Fire broke out, emergency officials estimated it would take days to reach Grand Lake, if it ever did. Then on Oct. 21, the flames raced across roughly 18 miles in 10 hours.
On Monday, officials from Grand Lake Fire, Grand Fire, the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, Grand County Office of Emergency Management and the US Forest Service talked about how the East Troublesome Fire unfolded on Grand County and shared lessons learned from the historic blaze.
“If you take 15 years of incidents, training, experience, resource allocation, expenditures, and you cram that into just less than 20 hours, that was the East Troublesome event,” Grand Lake Fire Chief Seth St. Germain said Monday during a community meeting.
“This thing went full demonic dragon on us very quickly,” he said.
Ultimately, the East Troublesome burned more than 192,000 acres in Grand County and Rocky Mountain National Park, making it one of 11 megafires in the U.S. last year and one of six in Colorado’s recorded history.
Grand Fire Assistant Chief Schelly Olson explained on Monday that firefighters were working to suppress the flames since the blaze began because it originally threatened the Big Horn Park subdivision, between Hot Sulphur Springs and Kremmling.
“This fire was, from the very start, a 100% full suppression fire,” Olson said.
Grand Fire Chief Brad White added that in the early days of the fire, the flames were growing around 500 to 4,000 acres daily, driven by wind and dry weather. On the morning of Oct. 21, the fire was measured around 23,000 acres with most of the containment on the west and south flanks to protect the Big Horn Park neighborhood.
White said that firefighters anticipated the fire behavior would intensify once the blaze jumped Colorado Highway 125, but there were few spots along the highway corridor where mitigation efforts would have been strategically useful.
“We always knew that area would be a tough spot if we got fire in there,” White said. “With fuel conditions as dry as they were and as windy as it was, once it crested that top, you’re in a condition where it’s going to spot down below on a consistent basis.”
The weather also wasn’t in the county’s favor. According to Incident Meteorologist Terry Lebo, the weather shifted Oct. 21 and cloud cover disappeared.
The disappearing cloud cover allowed the sun to heat fuels around the fire. In addition, the East Troublesome had a rare event where a column of cloud, smoke and ash collapsed back onto the fire and threw the flames east toward Grand Lake.
Grand County Undersheriff Wayne Schafer said that officials originally planned to evacuate the US Highway 34 corridor over the span of 24 hours, but when the column collapsed, that changed everything. They started mass evacuations to clear the area within 90 minutes.
Due to wind and smoke, the last time crews got an aerial view of the fire was around 6:20 p.m., when the fire was just past Highway 125. The Highway 125 corridor had been evacuated earlier that day and the day before.
An official in the Trail Creek Subdivision off County Road 41 saw the fire on a nearby ridgeline, setting off evacuations in the neighborhood around 6:30 p.m.
Less than an hour later, the entire US Highway 34 corridor was sent evacuation notices.
“We had a solid system in place to just slowly chunk off areas to evacuate, but when that column collapsed, that fire moved and it moved very rapidly,” Schafer said. “It was very apparent very quickly that we couldn’t keep up section by section, so our team made the decision to evacuate everything on the west side of (US 34).”
On top of US Forest Service crews and local fire districts, Grand County relied on the Mountain Area Mutual Aid agreement, which brought in surrounding resources from Colorado and nearby states. Once the evacuations were done, fire crews prioritized the town of Grand Lake and the area along County Road 4.
While the structures inside town limits were saved from damage, over 570 structures burned and the fire took two lives.
It left behind about $5 million to $7 million in debris cleanup and over $35 million in emergency watershed projects, County Emergency Manager Joel Cochran said.
It’s also estimated that fire suppression efforts cost about $25 million.
An investigation into the fire’s cause is ongoing. The East Troublesome has been determined to be human-caused, but Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said he didn’t have any updates on the investigation Monday.
“At this point, I can tell you there’s an investigation and that it’s very active, but it would be too premature to go into any details about that investigation,” Schroetlin said.
Heading into the 2021 fire season, there are several lessons from the Troublesome Fire that emergency officials are taking with them, including redefined evacuation zones, increased communication with state and federal partners, as well as additional training, St. Germain said.
Olson added that land managers in Grand have identified key areas for mitigation work, which could provide some protection from future fires.
However, drought conditions have not improved and summer weather is again predicted to be warm and dry. The county is having ongoing conversations about when to implement fire bans this summer and Olson encouraged everyone to prepare ahead of time for fire season.
“You never think (wildfire) could happen to you, but it did. It happened to us, it happened to me and it can happen again,” Olson said. “Keep doing mitigation because not every fire is an East Troublesome.”
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded $2.17 million to the Colorado division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for grant management costs as part of recovery efforts from the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.