Slow burn: How Grand County first responders are faring two years after the East Troublesome Fire (with video)
It’s been two years since the East Troublesome Fire grew from something seemingly containable on Oct. 14 to the second-largest blaze in Colorado history, a 193,812-acre conflagration with hurricane force winds that blew up on Oct. 21, 2020. But from the moment it started, dispatchers, emergency medical services workers, fire fighters, law enforcement and many other first responders were doing what they normally did: standing at the ready to help others.
The fire grew 87,093 acres in 24 hours. Some 555 structures were destroyed, nine buildings suffered major damage and 34 sustained minor damage. Of the destroyed buildings, more than 200 were primary residences. Tragically, one couple died. Many people caught in the fire in one way or another are still trying to deal with the outcome. Among them are Grand County’s first responders. Here’s a look at how they’re faring two years after East Troublesome took off.
From praying amid flames to steady and stable: Grand County Sheriff’s Office patrol sergeant Aaron Trainor
For Aaron Trainor, a patrol sergeant with the Grand County Sheriff’s office, one especially powerful memory of the East Troublesome Fire stays with him: when, in the middle of a firestorm in his vehicle, with the heat so strong he could feel it on his cheek, he thought of his baby boy and turned his body camera on and started praying.
It was the afternoon of Oct. 21, one week after the fire started. For days, Trainor and others had been observing it. But that afternoon, they began to notice it rapidly approaching Colorado Highway 125. A fire management officer sent Trainor and a few of his colleagues to the Trail Creek subdivision to monitor the situation, and there, amid smoke so thick they were forced to creep along the road at 5 mph, a gust of wind blew the fire up until flames were surrounding Trainor’s car.
In that moment, as he kept driving, he said, “I was on the downside of optimistic that we would come out of it. I turned on my camera in the hope that if something happened, at least there would be some story to tell. I was driving and praying.”
They escaped the flames “totally fine,” Trainor said, but what struck him was that “in law enforcement, we train for all kinds of things — for danger, for a guy shooting at you, there’s an answer to that problem — for a bad traffic accident. But when you’re driving through a big firestorm you’re at the mercy of the world at that point.”
Trainor, along with all of the law enforcement personnel that aided in fighting the East Troublesome Fire, made it out physically unharmed. He said he doesn’t have “crippling anxiety” from his experience, but there are memories that bring back certain feelings. He said he can be starting a campfire and “get a flash that takes me back to (East Troublesome) for a minute,” but the experience has taught him to be appreciative of the little things.
“More than anything it was a good reminder that any day can be your day and to live right,” added Trainor. “And the biggest takeaway from that was seeing how our community came together. Bad blood got put aside and all these fears that are super minuscule over stuff just got thrown away and people started helping each other. I wouldn’t say I’m glad it happened, but I’m glad that if it was going to happen, I could be there. I think that’s why all of us become first responders, because we want to be with people on their bad day. I’m glad I got to be there to help a community that employs me and raised me.”
Reflecting on East Troublesome: Granby Police Chief Glen Trainor’s thoughts on the possibility of losing his son
Framing a future: How 911 dispatcher Rachel Born and Richard Campell are rebuilding in Grand Lake
Dispatcher Rachel Born and her husband Richard Campbell had to leave their homes and possessions behind as East Troublesome tore through Grand Lake.
Born explained that those who lost their homes in the fire have all had different journeys. Some were able to find a secure place to live while they rebuilt; others ended up leaving Grand, starting from scratch in a new place.
“Two years ago, we were all in the same stage. Now we’re all splintering off in different stages of the going home process and healing process. It’s been weird (asking), ‘So can I still talk to you about this, are we good?’” Born said. “But it’s important that we’re all part of this greater first responder community.”
Born said it’s been enlightening speaking with other first responders who were on duty during the fire and its aftermath, learning about their personal experiences on the traumatic day.
“We’re a group of people that all had such different experiences that week,” she said. “I probably didn’t come back to work until a good solid three weeks after (the fire). We were doing insurance claims and property clean up.”
The mental recovery took much longer than the clean-up. But exactly two years after East Troublesome, the smoke is rising to reveal slow, steady progress. Born said she and Campbell are rebuilding. They’re now a little more than halfway finished.
They’re not ready to move in or as close as they’d like to be, “but there’s a roof on our house, there’s windows. So it’s not going to snow inside the house this winter … which means it looks like a house!” Born said.
The couple plan to work on the home all winter. Campbell is currently on the roof framing this week.
“He’s a mechanic by trade, so he works with his hands and he owns tools, but he’s a metal guy,” Born said. “We’re doing a lot of the work ourselves and hiring out what we can.”
Born and Campbell have struggled with building costs since their homeowner’s insurance hasn’t bridged the gap. But an end is in sight. The couple has enlisted the help of a construction crew, which Rachel’s brother is a part of. They plan to return home this spring. For now, they’re thankful they have a temporary home in Grand Lake.
“Fortunately, our living situation has been easier than some. We moved almost immediately into a rental house,” Born said.
Their friends owned the rental as a former short-term rental. Now, Born and Campbell can stay there as long as they need.
“At least we were able to just kind of settle in there and make it as much a home as we could,” she said. “That definitely is a blessing.”
‘Living out of suitcases’: Jodie and Doddie Kern’s search for a home after the fire
Jodie and Donnie Kern’s story is almost the reverse of Born and Campbell’s. Two years ago, the Kerns stood by the charred remains of their home, wondering what was next. Their journey to find shelter after the fire was not as smooth. Thankfully, the couple was able to return home in June of this year as they finish rebuilding.
“We moved in as soon as we could, because we couldn’t find a place to rent,” said Jodie, a 911 dispatcher. “We’d moved eight times — No. 8 was back into the house. It was crazy. We lived out of suitcases for almost a year.”
Jodie said she continued to work as a dispatcher throughout the ordeal. She said they shuttled between several places in Grand Lake, Granby and Winter Park — they even lived briefly in Denver. For victims of a natural disaster, the aftermath sometimes means forcing a brave face.
“There’s a lot of pressure to show as this gracious survivor who’s made it through this thing, and there’s a lot of pressure to take on that role before you’re ready,” she said. “But you’re still lost and heartbroken; you don’t have a home and you don’t have an anchor.”
When someone has lost all possessions, hope can be lost too. The couple briefly wondered if they’d ever make it back to Grand Lake.
“You feel like you’re floating with nowhere to call home. It’s really, really hard,” she said.
But the Grand County community rallied around the Kerns, and the path back home became clear.
“After the response from … our friends, from our people, we just knew that we couldn’t leave,” she said. “That this was our place and we’d definitely be rebuilding.”
Although the construction process has been longer and more expensive than the couple expected, they say everything has been worth it. The Kerns now proudly have a porch to place their Halloween decorations this season.
Jodie explained they still have work to do: “We have to put up siding and have to do all our outside drainage and then we’ve got some interior work to do,” she said. “But our kitchen works, our bathrooms work, we have beds … it’s awesome to be home.”
Asking for help, getting it and aiding others: Schelly Olson deals with the aftermath of her own trauma
Schelly Olson was out of state recouperating from working as the public information officer on the Williams Fork fire when East Troublesome started, but that didn’t stop her from catching the first-available flight home and getting to work on East Troublesome.
“I got to the fire station and I started making sandwiches for our crews that were out there fighting,” she said. “I looked around in some neighborhoods and I put out some fires and I assisted with temporary re-entry into the Trail Creek Estates so people could go and see their lots.”
That last duty was Olson’s most difficult because she was escorting her friends back to their destroyed homes. Olson also faced her own loss: East Troublesome took her house as well. “They used to call people like us victims; now they call them survivors,” she said. “I think initially I just felt like (helping others) was what I had to do because I didn’t know what to do with my own life.”
Olson had spent years as a first responder and, as the compounded trauma from such work built up, she finally sent herself to an inpatient treatment center for first responders called Shatterproof, in Florida.
There, she spent 40 days doing treatments proven to help PTSD survivors. At the end, she said, she wasn’t healed.
“There’s a misconception that people think you go somewhere and you are healed but absolutely not. You go somewhere and get treatments and pack your mental health toolbox with different coping methods. Group therapies. Individual therapies. Yoga, meditation, acupuncture and massage. These tools help those struggling with PTSD to move forward and then it’s up to the individual if they want to continue working through their trauma.”
Olson has continued on her path of healing while at the same time helping others. Last June, she teamed up with Mind Springs Health in a series of seminars for community members as well as first responders in the aftermath of East Troublesome. She offers a few simple things to do for those experiencing the aftermath of trauma.
- Box breathing: In counts for four, breathe in, hold your breath, breathe out, and hold your breath. Continue until you feel calmer.
- Read “The body keeps the score”: A book about how the body manages (and mismanages stress), with a focus on healing
- Seek help: Olson consulted the Psychology Today website when she knew she needed an expert to help her deal with her trauma.
Always at the ready: Grand County EMS Chief Robert Good speaks to how his team fared during and after the fire
Robert Good, the chief of Grand County EMS, said East Troublesome was a taxing time for his department, because it was charged with helping to evacuate people from the fire while still answering medical calls throughout the county and having to transport patients to Denver from local emergency rooms.
“But the flipside is that all of my staff came up to help and some of my command staff spent nearly 14 days up here non-stop,” he said. “I had at least one ambulance committed to the fire for 80 days. We have a red card medical team with the same training as a wildland firefighter.”
Good also said his crews traveled with firefighters to evacuate homeowners, in case the firefighters themselves were hurt, or homeowners were physically or mentally challenged.
“And we were still running our normal traffic accidents, and helping people who transported themselves to the hospital, and those who needed a higher level of care (in Denver), which puts one of our ambulances out of service in the county for a minimum of four to six hours,” Good said.
Still, Good said the first responders fared well during the fire and have continued to do so after, due to the attention his agency puts on mental health.
“We always worry about that and it’s something we address day in day out on a daily basis,” he said. “If someone were found to be mentally or physically stressed we would pull them out of the rotation and give them a break. We rotated people through the best we could — fairly frequently to make sure they were mentally and physically taken care of. “
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