Recovery work begins at Grand Lake Cemetery |

Recovery work begins at Grand Lake Cemetery

Mandy Hanifen explains the memorial damage caused by the heat of the East Troublesome Fire to volunteers on Friday at Grand Lake Cemetery. Hanifen has been coordinating recovery efforts for the historic cemetery inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
Amy Golden /

Seven months after the East Troublesome Fire blazed through the Grand Lake Cemetery, volunteers have finally been able to begin assisting with recovery efforts.

Mandy Hanifen, chair of the Grand Lake Cemetery Board, led the efforts Friday.

“After seven months, it’s great to see additional boots on the ground,” Hanifen said. “It’s been a lot of planning and logistics. So many people for so long have been wanting to help.”

The unique cemetery sits inside the boundaries of Rocky Mountain National Park, one of only a few active cemeteries located within the National Park System. That means Hanifen has had to work hand-in-hand with the park and its specific guidelines for restoration efforts.

A number of trees have been scorched, others have toppled over and the burn scar touches much of the western side of the cemetery. A number of memorials will need replacement after the heat of the fire destroyed the stone.

“It’s still surreal,” said Hanifen, who has done work at the cemetery for more than two decades. “In certain parts I look, it’s gut wrenching.”

Judy Kish, left, and Robin Suratt scrub a headstone clean on Friday at the Grand Lake Cemetery. Volunteers spent three days assisting with East Troublesome Fire recovery efforts at the cemetery.
Amy Golden /

According to Hanifen, the East Troublesome Fire affected 38 family memorials. Cleanup efforts, which took place Friday, Saturday and Sunday, were focused on safety and cleanup of the headstones where possible.

While all volunteers had their temperatures gauged as part of COVID-19 precautions, Hanifen also pulled out a thermometer for the memorials. Headstones have to be a certain temperature for the special cleaning solution to work.

As Robin Surratt scrubbed the ash off a memorial, she recalled the night of Oct. 21, when the East Troublesome Fire grew by over 100,000 acres overnight.

“We watched our whole hillside burn and thought for sure our house was gone,” she remembered.

That weekend, unable to go see if her house was still standing, she and her husband went to Denver for their son’s wedding. An hour before the ceremony, a friend inside the fire line inspecting propane tanks sent a photo of their still-standing home.

“We were so blessed, so we just want to help everybody,” Surratt said of her volunteerism.

Hanifen is grateful for the outpouring of community support, including by those who were directly impacted by the fire. For Friday’s cleanup of the Grand Lake Cemetery, Hanifen said three of the volunteers had lost everything in the fire.

The cleanup was made possible thanks to the regional chapter of the Rotary Club. Additionally, the East Troublesome Fire Adopt a Family shared a number of materials, and more organizations plan to assist with upcoming efforts.

“Collectively, so many people have come together,” Hanifen said. “I truly believe that statement, ‘We are Grand strong.’”

Volunteers spend the weekend evening out the ground, disposing of dead vegetation and cleaning headstones at the Grand Lake Cemetery.
Amy Golden /

Hanifen explained that it will take years to for the cemetery to fully recover from the fire.

With so many tress damaged, a forester with Rocky Mountain National Park has determined that 150 of them will need to come down at the cemetery. That work will be done in phases to help preserve the healthy trees on the east side.

Hanifen emphasized that the park has been a wonderful partner to the cemetery, especially considering the stretch of resources Rocky is facing due to recovery efforts for both the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires.

Despite the destruction, Hanifen pointed out burned areas where green shoots are already coming up. During the setup for the volunteer day, three or four moose walked through the cemetery.

“You know, you see signs of life where things are coming back,” Hanifen said. “Things are resilient. They will come back.”

Hanifen encouraged anyone interested in volunteering for the cemetery to keep an eye out for future calls for help, as there is plenty more to do.

Friday’s volunteers pose for a group photo before getting to work at the Grand Lake Cemetery. Full recovery from the East Troublesome Fire will likely take years.
Amy Golden /


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