IC: Colo. wildfire's explosive growth 'unheard of for a fire in this part of the world'
The East Troublesome Fire in Grand County grew 150,000 acres in 24 hours, now second-largest fire in state's history
By Kieran Nicholson, Shelly Bradbury, John Aguilar and Sam Tabachnik
The Denver Post
GRANBY, Colo. — Driven by strong winds and racing through dry fuels and timber, the East Troublesome fire in Grand County continued to rage Thursday, growing to 170,000 acres as it crossed the Continental Divide and forced new evacuations around Estes Park.
The fire, which burned an as-yet-undetermined number of homes and buildings while threatening Grand Lake, increased an extraordinary 150,000 acres in size Wednesday night and Thursday to become the second-largest wildfire in Colorado's recorded history.
"That's really unheard of for a fire in this part of the world (burning) in timber," incident commander Noel Livingston said of the wildfire's growth over the last two days.
All three of Colorado's largest recorded fires — Cameron Peak, East Troublesome and Pine Gulch — have burned in just the last three months, as a changing climate brings record temperatures, low relative humidity and statewide drought, all fueling explosive fire growth.
"This is the worst of the worst of the worst," Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin said at a morning briefing.
The East Troublesome fire — which had been estimated to be around 19,000 acres in size Wednesday — burned into Rocky Mountain National Park from the southwest, raising the possibility for a time that it could merge with the Cameron Peak fire, as it previously had burned into the park from the north. The entire park was closed to the public.
A spot fire that sparked off East Troublesome burned toward Mount Wuh in the national park, leading to apocalyptic skies in Estes Park and evacuation orders in and around the town Thursday afternoon. But an arriving cold front helped stall that fire's progress.
"It is not currently actively moving toward Estes Park as it was earlier in the day, so that's a relief," Livingston said during an evening briefing. He also downplayed earlier concerns about the two giant fires merging: "Right now we are not seeing that occurring."
Estes Park Mayor Wendy Koenig evacuated around 3:30 p.m. Thursday, she said. Koening lives in the Fish Creek area near Lake Estes and she left after being notified by the police department.
"Everybody was pretty calm," said Koening about the heavy traffic heading out on U.S. 34.
In Grand County, sustained winds in the 25 to 35 mph range and gusts up to 50 mph continued to push the fire, with billowing plumes of smoke rising on its north side.
Firefighters battling the blaze were in a "defensive mode, trying to protect everything we can," said Scott Jalbert, commander with Rocky Mountain Area Command.. "Our main strategy now is to focus on life and make sure everyone is evacuated out of those areas."
Mike Morgan, director of the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said Thursday that investigators were leaning toward ruling the start of the fire as human-caused.
Pre-evacuation notices were issued Thursday morning to residents in Granby, Granby Ranch and to areas from Grand Elk to Hot Sulphur Springs and from Grant County Road 55 to Grand County Road 88. The entire town of Grand Lake was ordered to evacuate Wednesday.
As of Thursday, the fire had not reached Grand Lake city limits, though it had burned into outlying subdivisions, Schroetlin said. Numerous structures were destroyed when the fire exploded Wednesday, Schroetlin said, though "the extent of that loss — we have no idea."
It's too soon to send deputies in to conduct damage assessments, he said. "There's so much smoke and active fire in that area right now."
There have been no reported injuries or deaths, the sheriff said, adding that some residents disregarded mandatory evacuation orders Wednesday. About five people were still considered missing by Thursday evening, Schroetlin said.
"The worst one I've ever seen"
John "JC" Carl evacuated from his home just outside Grand Lake around 8 p.m. Wednesday. He said he had five minutes to pack and leave, so he grabbed some clothes, his guns and some financial papers and got out.
"When I left you could see how the fire was spreading into the neighborhood," he said.
He believes his house likely burned. A 20-year resident of the area, Carl said he had been keeping an eye on the fire but did not expect it to reach his area on Wednesday.
"The fire was so far away yesterday, it was unfathomable it would reach my neighborhood" he said.
He evacuated to his mother's home in Golden and on Thursday was waiting to hear whether his house burned down.
He said he's never seen a fire season like this year's. "This is the worst one I've ever seen living in my entire life in Colorado."
Shawn Hakes, who has lived in the Grand Meadows neighborhood on the northeast end of Granby for five years, said he was counting on Colorado's largest river to afford protection from the massive fire — though he acknowledged it would be up to the winds as to where the fire jumps next.
"I don't think Granby residents are too worried, because it has to come down the ridge and cross the Colorado River," Hakes said, with some hesitation, adding: "But it ran into Grand Lake pretty fast, so everyone is being cautious."
Hakes had his Silverado ready to roll should evacuation orders come down, packed with keepsakes like his wife's knitting and his mother's paintings.
"All the stuff we can't replace," he said.
Just up the road, where open land meets the neighborhood's northern periphery, Jason Swann was also packing up — and waiting. The river between his house and the conflagration also gave him some solace, but he wasn't taking it easy.
Just past his backyard fence, gray billows of smoke filled the sky above the ridgeline and flames could be seen chewing through sagebrush just a couple miles away.
"I have a lot of friends who live that way," he said, pointing toward the fire. "They're all safe and sound."
Though he couldn't vouch for the state of their properties. Down on U.S. 40, the main thoroughfare through town, eastbound traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see.
That's where Laddie Coburn struck an odd juxtaposition to the traffic jam on West Agate Avenue. He ambled with his Yorkshire terrier, Obie, as if out for a mid-autumn walk.
"I don't do lines," he said, motioning to the stalled traffic.
Coburn said he was in Denver buying furniture for his Grand Lake condo and spent Wednesday night in Idaho Springs before venturing north, only to find the highway closed in Granby as the fire closed in.
He couldn't find a room in Winter Park or Fraser and finally checked in at the Trail Riders Motel in Granby. He wondered if he would be forced to evacuate from there by day's end.
"I was trying to stay with friends, but they all evacuated," he said.
Travis Eugert and his daughter Rylee Eugert could see a line of fire on a hill behind their home as they packed up to leave Granby on Thursday afternoon. Three dogs, three cats, the photos that matter — everything went into the vehicles. They're worried about the house.
"Worst case scenario, we lose everything," Travis said.
Once they get to a safe place, he's going to pull out the insurance policy and give it a close read.
"This is the cherry on top of the year 2020 for us," Rylee said.
"Not out of the woods"
Around 1 a.m. Thursday, Schroetlin offered a sober message to local residents.
"Many times when I choose to speak with you, I have a message," Schroetlin said in a Facebook video. "Tonight I'm not even sure what those words are."
Schroetlin said first responders made several heroic rescues and evacuations Wednesday as the fire rapidly approached. He wasn't sure what the area might look like in the morning.
"We knew this fire was here. We knew the impacts of it. We looked at every possible potential for this fire," the sheriff said. "We never expected 6,000 acres per hour to come across our community."
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- Incident Command