Burn scars: Recovery from Colorado’s largest wildfire feels a long way out
On anniversary of East Troublesome Fire, community still recovering, learning to live in the 193,812 acres that burned
No one lost more in the East Troublesome Fire than Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, an elderly couple who died inside their home as the fire barreled down on Grand Lake and the surrounding neighborhoods Oct. 21, 2020.
The couple, ages 86 and 84, refused to the leave the home they loved. In a letter to the community in the weeks following the fire, the Hilemans’ family remembered over 30 years of memories with their parents and grandparents at the Grand Lake house.
Along with those two lives, the East Troublesome Fire took 366 homes and 189 structures and buildings. Damages are estimated at nearly $200 million, and the burn scar spreads across nearly a fifth of Grand County.
In the year since the fire, homeowners have sifted through the ashes, battled insurance companies and tried to rebuild — or have left it behind.
However they have chosen to move on in the year since the fire, these are a few stories from the East Troublesome Fire’s scar, which covers 193,812 acres.
Determined to rebuild
The East Troublesome Fire overtook the Winding River Ranch and its deadly flames engulfed the property, but the fire couldn’t touch all the memories or hard work that Elaine Busse and her family have put into the land over the past 63 years.
At 97 years old, Busse is in the recovery process like so many others. The fire burned the entire Winding River Ranch property, setting 29 buildings ablaze at the popular wedding venue famous for breathtaking views of the Never Summer Mountains.
Busse estimates it will take a few years just to clean up all the rubble and debris before they can actually start to rebuild.
While the damage was widespread and the work that lies ahead is immense, the faith and resolve that’s sustained Busse and her family for decades are now propelling her through the disaster.
“I’m still trying to convince myself it’s all gone,” she said. “I mean, it’s gone. It’s very strange. But, you know, I know in my heart God is on the throne. He is the boss. He will help us do whatever He wants to make it right. I won’t be here to see that, but my grandchildren will.”
When Busse moved from Illinois to Grand County more than six decades ago, she had never seen a mountain before. She recalled that her family, including her teenage children, all thought she was crazy and that it took a lot to pull up for a life in the Rockies.
“’So you’re moving to the mountains?’ They looked at me like I had lost my marbles — but they all came,” Busse recalled. “They all worked hard, and they all brought someone to help. It’s interesting that my children all brought someone to help and they ended up marrying the very people they brought.”
An old newspaper clipping that had been laminated, family photographs and other prized possessions burned up in the Troublesome fire, along with all the ranch’s computers, files and buildings — everything. But the memories Busse and her family have, including her 12 great-great grandchildren, remain well intact.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Busse said as she reflected on her situation.
“People have been so wonderful,” she continued. “People that were on the ranch, helping me at 14, 15, 16 — they’re now in their 60s and 70s. I’m getting calls from all these kids; I just never realized how their lives changed because of the ranch. Nobody can take away all the memories or the hard work.”
Busse said she hasn’t considered retiring yet, though her children and grandchildren might wish that she would.
“Well, my children and my grandchildren especially, ‘Grandma will you please stop working,’” Busse said. “But you know what, my work is so rewarding and I see miracles every day.”
No instruction manual
JD Krones does not feel like much of an expert on rebuilding.
A year after losing his home to the East Troublesome Fire, he hasn’t made nearly the progress he imagined he would in the immediate aftermath.
In the days and weeks following the fire, Krones wrote essays outlining the future — to spend the winter planning and break ground as soon as the snow melted — and calling on the outpouring of support to keep up in the months to come.
“I was really energized,” Krones recalled. “I was like, this is a challenge that we can all tackle and bring the community together. I’ve never experienced depression, so I think that was something that was a little unexpected. … I think it’s more of a disappointment in myself that I wasn’t able to actually achieve what I wanted to in those early essays.”
The executive director of the Colorado Headwaters Land Trust, Krones moved to Grand County with his cat, Gus, in 2018. He bought a little cabin outside of Grand Lake near the golf course in February 2020 and got his dog, Cauli, a few months later.
It was the perfect size, the perfect location and the perfect time to transition.
“I never thought I’d be one to say this because I’ve been trail crew, cowboy and very kind of nomadic — but I was doing everything right,” Krones said. “I got a good job, I bought a house, got a dog, whatever. Then it all just went up in smoke — literally.”
Wanting to be self-sufficient, Krones thought he would figure out the rebuilding process himself. But rebuilding is a full-time job, and he simply didn’t have the mental resources.
Full of vigor but having no idea what to do, Krones’ energy quickly disappeared.
“That’s something where there’s so many resources out there about fire prevention and fire mitigation,” Krones said. “There’s not a whole lot — at least not easily available or obvious — about the steps that you go through (rebuilding) and how you go through it the easiest way. If I didn’t have an attorney, which I didn’t think about until about six months in, I have no idea what I’d be doing.”
The confusion and frustration of the rebuilding process, coupled with the intricacies of navigating insurance policies following a total loss, has taught Krones that the process simply is not working.
“We all know that we need one. We don’t know how they work, home insurance and all those things,” he said. “I think that’s something that I’ve learned we need to pay more attention to. It shouldn’t be like this. It shouldn’t be this difficult.”
Krones is finally in talks with a contractor about designing and building his new place. He’s trying to get everything sorted so that construction can begin next spring.
Returning to their ranch on County Road 42 days after the East Troublesome forced them to flee, Laura Mauck was pretty sure the family home she shared with her partner, newborn son and in-laws would be gone.
She didn’t expect to see the fully-stocked hay shed or wooden barn sitting intact and unharmed just 100 yards from the remnants of their home.
“I remember calling my mom and going, ‘I think our house is going to burn down,’” Mauck said. “I think it caught the wind or the embers from the fire because almost nothing to the right in the valley burned.”
Luckily, Mauck and her partner Tyler Klees had moved their 27 horses to Hot Sulphur Springs during the pre-evacuation. However, the night they had to leave their home was still chaotic.
Under the threat of looming flames, Mauck frantically gathered everything she might need for her 3-month-old Roman and was unable to collect family heirlooms and priceless memories. As the family was almost out the door, Klees turned back for their dalmatian, Luna, who was hiding from the smoke and heat.
“I remember looking back at (US Highway) 34 and County Road 42 and seeing the fire on that ridgeline,” Mauck said. “Innately, you feel that sense of urgency.”
Later, a neighbor told Mauck that she saw their house start to burn only about 15 minutes after they cleared out.
For the next few months, the family hopped from place to place while trying to navigate insurance and cleanup efforts, while still working on breaking horses and running a Minnesota hotel.
“It was not my ideal first-child, first-year-of-life situation,” Mauck said.
In February, they moved into a modular home on their property to begin the lengthy rebuilding process. When it came time to decide how to recover, there were a lot of mixed feelings. Real estate and building costs were spiking, while home insurance was stingy with payments. For Mauck and the family, it came down to having so many memories on the land.
“It was like ‘how can we leave, but how can we stay?’ … but you can’t find a property like ours,” Mauck said. “We all love the view, and it doesn’t get any better, even with the burn scar that’s there because eventually it will be overgrown with beautiful aspen.”
However, insurance only covered one-third of the estimated costs, leading the rebuild to be significantly different from their old home, shrinking in size and lacking the log cabin design that Klees and Mauck loved.
Additionally, the family learned their home wasn’t in a fire district, and they’re now petitioning to become a part of one to help protect their new space, which is already under construction.
Though there’s still a long way to go — likely another 18 months before the home is finished — Klees is glad to be one year removed from the fire.
“It was, ‘Don’t worry about what you can’t control, move forward and focus on what you can,’” Klees said. “I’m so thankful for where we’re at now compared to where we were.”
A move to heal
Among the 366 homes destroyed by the Troublesome Fire, one belonged to Keith and Laura Kratz, owners of Studio 8369, a beloved, eclectic little art studio that closed earlier this year.
About five years ago, Keith and Laura Kratz bought the business that had existed as a staple in Grand Lake since 1992. They refused to call it an “art gallery” because they believe that everyday people might prefer the feeling of an “art studio.”
For Laura, a painter, and Keith, a photographer, the studio was the prefect outlet to showcase their work alongside that of more than 70 other Colorado artisans, offering everything from woodworking and blown glass to pottery and all sorts of different types of paintings.
With such a wide assortment, Studio 8369 was a destination for tourists, and countless locals found wedding and graduation gifts there. For the Kratzes, the studio was a special place where people fell in love with art they could actually afford to take home.
However, the couple has since packed up and hit the road. The Troublesome fire wasn’t the only reason Laura and Keith decided to close their business and move to Washington state, but it played a major role in their decision-making process.
“That was an extremely difficult decision to make,” Laura said of closing the business, explaining that after losing everything in the fire and finding out the owner of the building housing their studio wanted to sell, they could not afford to buy it themselves or build new.
Coupled with a spring trip to visit their children and grandchildren, the Kratzes felt like they needed a change of setting, and this was simply the right time.
“It was a very healing time to be there (with our family in Washington), and we kind of felt like we couldn’t continue to heal here, and that it was time to go be near kids and the grandkids,” Laura said. “I never thought I would use the ‘R word,’ and say we ‘retired.’”
“And we never really thought we’d leave Colorado, either,” Keith interjected. “But like you said, and our daughters kind of nudged us … family is important, and for the healing process, we really need to do this.”
Being surrounded by the burn scar and seeing many of their friends leave hasn’t been easy for Keith and Laura Kratz. While they will always be grateful for their experience in Grand Lake and at Studio 8369, they also fear what the future of wildfires could mean for the area and need to heal.
The next fire
After the fire, the house next to Krones’ was still standing. From what he understands of that night, it makes sense: A crew showed up to his home already burning and went to work to protect his neighbor’s house.
“People asked me, ‘Are you angry at her, my neighbor? Do you blame anybody?’” Krones said. “I was like, what is this weird psychological phenomenon that we have that we have to afford blame to somebody or get angry at a specific person or specific event?”
If Krones blames anything, as someone with a passion for land management, he blames the last century of policies that have cultivated such an unhealthy forest ecosystem across the American West.
“It’s not just a fluke,” he said. “It’s not just a one-time event. This has been leading up to for at least the last century if not the last 400 years.”
Years from now, Krones hopes the East Troublesome Fire will be seen as a turning point in the perception of community and land management. He thinks the approach needs to be more holistic, bringing everyone to the table, providing more incentives for logging and better appreciation for land managers like cattle ranchers.
Krones feels certain that what happened with East Troublesome won’t be the only one of its kind. Whether it’s a year or decades from now, he hopes Grand County will be ready.
Despite the challenges, Krones isn’t going anywhere. He was ready to settle down in Grand County last February, and that attitude hasn’t changed. It’s just been delayed a bit.
“Let’s see what happens, if I’m able to do this,” Krones said. “If I’m not, I’ll slink back to Maryland with my tail between my legs and help my dad on the farm.”
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