Winding path to recovery: Volunteers aid in cleanup of East Troublesome Fire
Winding River Ranch, a wedding venue known for breathtaking views of the Never Summer Mountains, now takes the breath away in a much different way.
The ridges surrounding the property track the path of the massive East Troublesome Fire, which rampaged through the property Oct. 21 and took all 29 buildings with it. A small bridge, which led brides to their scenic wedding ceremonies, has been destroyed, but the benches for the ceremonies’ audiences sit almost untouched.
Piles of ashes and foundation are all that remain of most of the buildings.
“That one’s the worst,” Winding River Ranch owner Travis Busse said of the indoor arena, which now sits as a pile of misshapen metal. “That’s hard to see taken down, but we gotta get it. It melted those beams, curled them in. It got so hot. It was horrible.”
Cleaning up 29 buildings, including his home, is no small feat. But Busse’s not doing it alone.
On Saturday morning, heavy machinery was already transferring all kinds of rubble to piles and dumpsters. Volunteers clad in neon vests were quick to get to work.
Thanks to the efforts of an informal group known as the “East Troublesome Fire Adopt a Family,” over 100 people came out Saturday to help clean up 12 properties destroyed by the fire, including Busse’s.
“I was shocked when they said they were coming out here,” Busse said. “I figured I was going to be doing it myself, one building at a time.”
One day will not be enough to get the Winding River Ranch cleaned up, but the extra pairs of hands were busy all day picking up warped metal and burnt insulation. For Busse, it meant a step closer to rebuilding.
Shannon Schliep, one of the organizers with Adopt a Family, said the group initially formed to help out families who had lost their homes find a sense of normalcy during the holidays.
She explained that immediately following a disaster many rush to the aid of those affected only to disappear a few weeks later. For those who’ve lost everything, six months on, the cleanup and recovery efforts are still just beginning.
“Once the snow starts to melt, you realize the destruction,” Schliep said. “That’s when it sets in for people. It pushed the group to keep doing what we can now that it’s really the time (homeowners) need help.”
There were 366 primary and secondary homes destroyed in the East Troublesome Fire and around 200 outbuildings. Grand County’s emergency management office said it has spoken with 112 of those homeowners who say they have completely cleaned up their sites. Official estimate that up to 215 of the destroyed homes may already be cleared.
Disaster clean up happens based on people’s capabilities, with insurance claims and personal finances often driving the work.
Bringing out over 100 volunteers was a helpful way to make progress, but Schliep said that community partners have been fundamental in making this event happen.
To organize the event, Adopt a Family partnered with the Rotary Club and Global Machinery, which contributed heavy equipment. Northwest Ranch Supply, Murdoch’s, ACE, Colorado Timber Resources, Indian Peaks Rental and Good to Go Sanitation also provided personal protective equipment, tools and machinery.
“This community has been so giving. It’s just amazing,” Schliep said.
Busse said that it’s been hard watching what’s left of the historic ranch be torn down. Winding River Ranch has been in his family for generations, so rebuilding is something that he feels he has to do.
“Been here 58 years. I can’t leave now,” he said. “I gotta keep it going for Granny.”
Out front of where Winding River Ranch used to stand, Marty Moose holds up a sign that reads, “Sorry folks! We’re closed for two years to clean and rebuild Colorado’s most beautiful wedding venue.”
Two years to rebuild seems realistic to Busse, though it’s been difficult dealing with insurance. It will likely not be all 29 buildings rebuilt but instead a venue, a shop and a house to start with.
Busse has been helping out others with excavation and disposal, though there are a number of his own buildings that he still needs to work on.
“You’d think I’d do my own, but trying to help other people — that’s just how it is with me,” Busse said with a laugh.
He added that he is so grateful to have so many friends and neighbors coming out to help him with this process.
Next to the burned rubble of the footbridge, Busse pointed out two wagon wheels that survived the fire. They overlap like intersecting wedding rings.
“I gotta keep going,” Busse said. “Those wagon wheels are the only two that didn’t burn. I still feel like I need to do weddings.”
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After their soccer game Saturday, the Grand County Wildcats suited up for a very different type of game.