An Exhibit Revisiting Grand Lake’s Darkest Day is Helping Residents Recover From it
Bill Bruton is noticing some surprising changes in his mountain town nine months after the state’s second largest wildfire ripped through it, destroying more than 300 homes.
“Yesterday, I was up there hiking in (Rocky Mountain National Park), and it's amazing. The vistas are greater than they ever were because all there are black poles sticking up,” he said in early July as he led a historical tour in downtown Grand Lake. “You can see ridges that I didn't know where they were.”
Bruton still remembers the day he had to evacuate. The wind was so harsh, he said he had to hold onto his hat. Today, he sees some signs of lingering trouble.
“The creeks are running black now, sometimes after the rain. People are a little nervous,” he said.
But to fully understand how the blaze has affected the community, Bruton suggests stopping by a brand-new museum that just opened down the street.
Inside, Chamber of Commerce director Emily Hagen points out artifacts she has collected from the East Troublesome Fire.
They include metal roofing material recovered from a home in Sun Valley Ranch, and many family heirlooms.
“The reality is that some of these items look like they've lived at the bottom of the ocean for 200 years,” Hagen says. “But these were beloved, precious things.”
There are also many photos, including one of a dead elk that did not escape the blaze. The wildfire burned an area almost twice the size of Denver’s city limits.
“You can really see the intensity in some of these images,” Hagen says. “They're not easy to look at, but this wasn't an easy situation. There's not a way to make this fire right.”
Which raises a question: why would the town’s top tourism promoter move so quickly this summer to open an exhibit revisiting the town’s darkest day in history?
Hagen says it’s an important part of the recovery effort.
“It can be really difficult for someone who lost everything to discuss it over and over and over again,” she says. “So this project started as an early version for me as the chamber director to support my businesses by giving them a place to send their guests who have questions so that they maybe get a break from talking about the fire. Some days they can. Some days they can’t.”
Residents have complained about people driving through burned neighborhoods to take pictures and “gawk” at the devastation. Tourists who come from all over the world also have many questions about the blaze when they arrive.
The exhibit, which is scheduled to be open through October, is not just helping business owners avoid reliving their trauma when tourists start asking questions.
It’s also an important outlet for those who lost loved ones and property.
As Hagen continues a tour, Andi Pitcher arrives to donate another artifact.
It’s a piece of burned tree bark she recovered from the blaze.
Pitcher chokes up when she spots the large bowl of candy in the museum paying tribute to Marylin Hileman, a friend and neighbor who died in the fire along with her husband, Lyle.
“Marylin had 40 bowls of candy in her house all the time. There always (was) candy on the spot,” Pitcher says. “But it's an honor for us who lost everything, that people come and witness it. Just witness it. Just watch it with us.”
Pitcher lost her family ranch in the fire. She warns that late season wildfires that are harder to fight with limited resources are likely to become more common in the American West.
“This is the new baseline,” she says as she looks at photos of the East Troublesome Fire taken by photojournalist Thomas Cooper. “Late season. Dense population. Small, small towns. How do we mobilize? How do we get out in 30 minutes? You know, this fire is so important to everyone outside of this area that I'm hoping that others can come and somehow understand and learn from this. Because I have two words. Once fire comes, ‘get out,’ and that's it.”
Pitcher grew up on a ranch in the Grand Lake area with several other families. It was in an area hardest hit by the flames. She now refers to her ranch as part of “the black.”
Many of the trees around her have been knocked down, creating surreal waves where they have fallen.
“It is as if the mountainside shattered,” Pitcher says as she gives a tour of the property. “It's like safety glass that somebody threw a giant huge bowling ball through, like our existence and the whole troublesome, all of it is just shattered. And I call this the vortex because we got hit harder than any other place.”
Homes were burned down to their foundations.
In the rubble is melted glass, and some artifacts like a charred jingle bell Christmas ornament.
Pitcher doesn’t think anything could have stopped the fire.
“We knew the fire was coming for 20 years,” she says. “But nobody gave me a game book on how to go forward afterwards. The No. 1 thing I think we can change in terms of our administrative policies towards land management is a playbook saying ‘look, I may not be able to stop a cataclysm like this happening to your home, but look at this little town of Grand Lake, Colorado. If they can do it, you can do it. And here's a couple of things that they're doing. And they're things like making sure we observe tradition, making sure that we look out for our neighbors.’”
As she walks through the charred land, Pitcher is still flooded with good memories. She talks about the ingenuity it took to live here, and the support network from the families who built cabins nearby.
“The woodpecker made it,” she says, a hopeful tone now in her voice. “I'm hoping that she stays. These trees, every single one that you see that's down, they were friends.”
Pitcher also points out that the septic system survived. She says the place might make a good site for a tiny home someday.
“I don't want a bulldozer. I don't want a chainsaw,” she says. “I want a crochet hook, I want knitting needles. I want to knit the place back together. Knit the people back together. I don't want to carve it up anymore. This is kind of the brutal surgery part.”
She stops to sit on a rock at a glassy, mirror-like trout pond that offers sweeping views of the Kawuneeche Valley and Rocky Mountain National Park.
From here, it’s apparent how close the ranch came to surviving, as unburned trees stand not too far in the distance.
Pitcher says before she starts to rebuild, she wants to “put her ear to the ground and listen.” She splits her time between Grand Lake and Utah. When she's in "the black," she has time to reflect.
“What is this new terrain telling us? I won't build the same way twice,” she says. “I don't have the canopy anymore. It'll be a different vision. but like Lyle (Hileman) said, ‘it's a grand idea.’ It's a project and a grand idea, and I do think that it's in a lot of ways a fresh start.”
In the meantime, she’s continuing to bring artifacts to the museum, including an audio recording from Lyle Hileman talking about settling the property. She’s also hoping more people will visit and learn about the fire, and its aftermath.
A slow recovery
There are subtle signs of recovery all around Grand Lake.
Elk herds are grazing in charred forests in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Purple lupine flowers are growing again.
Helicopters are seeding hillsides to prevent flash floods.
And back at the East Troublesome exhibit, Emily Hagen says dozens of tourists each day are making the journey to the museum to learn more about the disaster. She says each story that is told accelerates the recovery.
“This town is gritty and resilient and full of characters that really breathe life into it all the time,” Hagen says. “There's definitely days that are harder than others. For example, personally, I wasn't prepared for when the snow melt happened, how dark the ground was. Having that layer of white really kind of softened the blow. And it's kind of like a scab comes off your wound and you feel it for a few days and then it kind of heals back over and you just keep moving forward. All in all, we're doing really well.”