Lives, lifetimes lost in East Troublesome Fire
Widespread damage starts to come into focus
As Donnie Kern pulled out of his driveway in Columbine Lake last Wednesday, he watched the East Troublesome Fire swallow the tipi in his yard, knowing his home was next.
“It was a 60 foot wall of flame moving at 60 mph,” Donnie said. “It hit my house like a hurricane.”
The East Troublesome Fire remains at 192,560 acres since a snowstorm dropped six inches to a foot of snow on the fire on Sunday. Containment was up to 20% by Tuesday morning, but Incident Commander Noel Livingston said the snow wouldn’t extinguish the blaze. Instead, crews continue to work so that when the snow melts, the fire hopefully won’t spread anymore.
Kern and his family were eating dinner in their home last Wednesday when they received pre-evacuation orders. Kern and his wife, Jodie, packed family photos and clothes for a few days.
“We were keeping track of where the fire was at, not thinking it would ever actually impact our area or Grand Lake at all,” Jodie said. “We were pulling things out of the closet, this and that, thinking we’ll be back in a few days.”
In an unprecedented turn pushed by strong winds and abundant fuels, the East Troublesome Fire grew more than 100,000 acres overnight, reaching the Kerns’ house around 7:30 p.m. that night.
With the sky darkening above them, Jodie could hear the crackling of the fire approaching moments before a red glow bathed her neighbor’s house, and she knew it was time to leave.
“It started to get super black outside and it wasn’t time — it was too early,” she said. “It was the most terrifying sound that I will never forget. We could actually hear the fire. I will never be able to describe it, not being able to see it, but we could hear it.”
The Kerns’ home was destroyed by the fire. Jodie, a dispatcher for the sheriff’s office, and Donnie, a retired firefighter, are used to responding to emergencies, but this is new for them.
“Learning to accept help has been hard because I’m the helper,” Jodie said. “We swing wildly from Grand County Strong and we’re going to rebuild to the other side, where we will never be able to be in that spot again where everything was lost.”
Some losses were greater than property. Refusing to leave the home they loved, Lyle and Marilyn Hileman died together in the East Troublesome Fire on Wednesday.
Their family had suspected the worst, and Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin confirmed that sheriff’s office personnel and the Grand County coroner recovered two bodies from the couple’s home on County Road 491, north of Grand Lake, on Friday.
“Over the past couple days, I’ve worked with the Hileman family while they waited for the answers they really didn’t want to hear but they knew were a reality,” Schroetlin said.
Emergency responders tried to rescue the couple after receiving reports they were trapped in the basement, the sheriff continued, but emergency crews were met by a fire front that forced them out of the area. Also, the Hilemans didn’t want to evacuate the home they had lived in for years.
After confirming the couple died in the fire, Schroetlin read a statement from the family, in which he said that a family friend and safety officials even drove through roadblocks to try to save the Hilemans, but the couple still refused to leave.
“At 86 and 84 years of age, their only desire was to be together at the home they loved,” the family’s statement read.
In the statement, the family described the Hilemans’ last phone call to their son. Before the call ended, Marilyn Hileman told her son they smelled smoke.
“It would be late Thursday before confirmation would come that the house was destroyed, but our family feels comfort in the knowledge our parents left this world together and on their own terms,” the family said.
Schroetlin said there are no other missing persons on file in connection to the East Troublesome Fire.
Early Damage report
On Friday, Grand Lake Town Manager John Crone was able get back in and see some of the damage. It’s unclear how many homes and structures have been lost because the damage assessment is ongoing, but Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said Tuesday that at least 100 homes have been impacted, and Columbine Lake, County Roads 41, 48 and 49 were hard hit.
While the Columbine Lake neighborhood experienced significant damage, especially on its western edge and along County Road 495, “there are a significant number of homes still standing in Columbine Lake — a significant number,” Crone said.
The Sky-Hi News got into Columbine Lake on Monday and saw that only 10-20% of the homes in the neighborhood had been destroyed. The 100-year-old Grand Lake Lodge is also still standing, as are all the surrounding neighborhoods.
The Sun Valley neighborhood, however, has been absolutely devastated by the fire.
There was significant damage along Golf Course Road as well, but Crone said the golf course and its club house both survived the fire, though a maintenance shed did not.
“There’s going to need to be a lot of healing,” Crone said. “There’s just going to need to be a whole lot of healing from all of this.”
Crone said that no structures within the town of Grand Lake proper burned, but Grand Lake extends well into the surrounding neighborhoods and the town is committed to doing everything it can to help.
“We’re in this together,” Crone said, adding that Grand Lake will feel the effects of the East Troublesome Fire for a long, long time.
Deputies have been working to notify individual homeowners of damage or loss of property, but with the large area impacted by the fire and access impeded by snow and fallen trees, the full damage report is expected to take until the end of the week.
In an effort to help speed up the process, the sheriff’s office is asking homeowners to fill out a property verification form to aid the notification process.
A Surge of Support
News of the fire’s devastation spread as quickly as the flames, eliciting support from all over the state and beyond.
Gov. Jared Polis and Rep. Joe Neguse visited with evacuees and fire crews on Friday, while Sen. Cory Gardner communicated with fire officials on Tuesday.
Locally, the Grand Foundation is organizing funds for recovery efforts through the Wildfire Emergency Fund and Grand County Outbreak of Kindness gathered food, clothing and supply donations.
Many individuals are also using the Go Fund Me website to share their stories and ask for help.
The Kerns have a Go Fund Me page, which was set up by their son, at http://www.gofundme.com/f/retired-firefighter-and-dispatcher-wildfire-relief.
Unfortunately, the Kerns are not the only first responders impacted by the East Troublesome Fire, and Grand Fire Assistant Chief Schelly Olson posted on Facebook that her home had been lost.
The Grand County Wildfire Council, which Olson is a part of, is accepting donations for fire mitigation and recovery for those impacted by the East Troublesome Fire.
Grand Lake fire has also had four volunteers lose their homes, according to the department. A Go Fund Me page set up by Ellie St. Germain, whose husband is the Grand Lake assistant fire chief, is dedicated to helping Grand County’s first responders rebuild.
“Our hearts are broken because our friends who we consider family, their stuff is gone and there’s no way of getting it back,” St. Germain said. “Our goal is to provide the (first responders) some sort of safety.”
So far, St. Germain’s fundraiser, http://www.gofundme.com/f/firefighter-who-lost-their-home, has received over $140,000 in donations.
From Closure to recovery
Some of the damage is impossible to catalogue.
Paul Hedgecock, owner of the Highland Marina, learned his business had burned in the fire while watching a news clip. He had evacuated his home quickly, leaving him with little more than the clothes on his back.
“I was watching Good Morning America and they were standing in my parking lot and it was on fire,” Hedgecock recalled. “At least I got closure, right then. I didn’t have to wonder anymore.”
The Hedgecock family has owned Highland Marina since 1984 and Paul said he hopes some version of it will be back on Lake Granby in the future. A friend set up a Go Fund Me page to help the Hedgecocks at http://www.gofundme.com/f/highland-marina-fire-loss.
“It’s going to come back somehow,” he said.
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When the East Troublesome Fire blew up on Grand County, it blew up on all of us.