It starts with me saying: “We had 15 minutes,” and ends with my audience asking, “What can we do?”
The 15 minutes refers to the amount of time my neighbors and I had on Wednesday, October 21, to prepare for evacuation as the East Troublesome fire flooded its way across Grand County, Colorado, destroying everything in its rapid and sporadic path.
I have the call log: at 6:42pm I received an automated reverse-911 call informing me my neighborhood, located on the west side of US-34 just south of Rocky Mountain National, was under a pre-evacuation order. That means we should be ready to hit the road, but we didn’t have to leave quite yet. Usually there is some down time between pre-evacuation and evacuation orders.
Not this time.
Exactly 15 minutes later, at 6:57, the same automated voice informed me to get out, now. Ultimately my cabin was destroyed, but my animals and I are safe.
I told the full tale of evacuation in another post, but the purpose of this essay is to look forward, to answer the question that ends the story:
What can we do?
We have donations. Starting the day after the Grand Lake evacuations, the various nonprofits and municipal offices coordinating on the fire received clothes, toiletries, foods, toys, pet supplies, books, and so much more for those of us displaced by the fire; the donations poured from the Front Range, the Western Slope, and the Eastern Plains. We have access federal, state, local, and independent grants. Other community support systems sprung up overnight, offering pet boarding and mental health services and free coffee for evacuees and first responders.
Working in the nonprofit world, I know the impact of donations. I understand how fundraising works, what the psychology is behind giving money or clothes in a time of need. But I also understand that such donations only go so far. They are given immediately and therefore, in general, only address immediate needs.
It is heart-warming and promising to see the swell of support come to help those of us in need in such a divided time. Elected officials and citizen leaders are rallying their constituents and supporters to lend a hand, to share their collective wealth. But just as quickly as those calls for aid are answered, they are forgotten.
We have a hard time looking far into the future and planning for those next steps, but experience teaches everything. I was 11 when 9/11 happened, 15 for Hurricane Katrina, and 18 during the 2008 Financial Crisis. I have come to understand there is an accepted end of the road we take during these disastrous events, especially as it pertains to physically rebuilding the community.
However, it does not take much to extend that road a little bit farther, for us in Grand County and for everyone affected by disasters elsewhere.
In the aftermath of the East Troublesome Fire, we need to extend it about eight months. We need to look forward, to after the snow melts and my neighbors and I can “ground truth” (to take a phrase from the conservation world) what happened and what needs to happen, and begin to rebuild.
We can spend the winter months – long and dark as they are – planning and preparing to begin anew. When we do break ground, we will not need new clothes or canned vegetables: we will need your help to physically rebuild the community. Insurance and governmental grants help, but they do not provide community.
Contractors and building supplies were already in short supply and high demand before the fires, and this necessary rebuild will only exacerbate the issue. We will need housing for the workers, and an influx of building materials for concrete slabs and wood frames and metal roofs. We will need inspectors and assessors and code enforcers to ensure the houses being built are legitimate and strong. We will need commitments from local builders to help the displaced residents in whatever ways they can.
Contact your elected officials and citizen leaders and encourage them to lead by example in this time of need. They can not only help with zoning and permitting, but they can also get their hands dirty alongside the rest of us. Whether you can contribute with a hammer and nails or a batch of cookies on a Sunday morning in July, your help will be needed, welcomed, and accepted.
Your support will not just be used to help the army of labor – those cookies will represent the community coming together and staying together through thick and thin. Let us maintain the outpouring of support far into the future, for us in Grand County and for everyone whose lives cannot be restored immediately, but over time with a strong community.
See you in eight months. My favorite cookies are chocolate chip.
Author’s Note:I wrote this to my family, which is largely along the Atlantic seaboard but with some outposts in Texas and California, on Saturday, 24 October. This explains some of the geographical explanations, and it should be kept in mind that ‘tomorrow’ as written in the note is Sunday, 25 October. This note is edited to protect identities of those who would rather not have their names shared online. Otherwise it has not been edited (i.e. the italicized interjections were in the original email).
I have not updated my extended community in any broad way since then. However, the animals and I are settled into the condo and we are doing well, outside of some residual emotional unrest.
The photos interspersed in this essay were included as attachments in the original email.
If you would like to contribute in any fashion, please consider:
Grand Foundation Wildfire Emergency Fund – will accept funds, or if you have materials to donate to the evacuees and others affected by the fires call the Grand Foundation office and they can direct you to the appropriate people.
If you would like to donate funds or materials to me, which will benefit the animals, my current life, or the eventual reconstruction of my house, please message me directly.
Most of you are aware either through social media or word-of-mouth that in the last few days I lost my house due to what is measured to be the second-largest wildlife in Colorado history. The East Troublesome Fire grew at an unprecedented rate over the last week and a half and has scorched most of my region, growing in every direction with each whimsical change of the wind.
While I have not confirmed my loss with my own eyes, I trust the source of the information (my neighbor) and based on other reports from neighbors about their homes, I would be very surprised if my little cabin survived. The hot tub, maybe. Or maybe just the rubber duckies in the hot tub. I am holding out hope for the smallest of the duckies, since he was most often submerged.
Note: As I was writing this email another neighbor texted me a photo of what was my house. Its destruction is now confirmed, and I don’t believe even the smallest rubber duckie survived the conflagration.
Grand Lake was evacuated Wednesday evening; I received the pre-evacuation notice through a reverse-911 call at 6:42pm, and then received an evacuation call at 6:57. I barely had enough time to call two of my elderly neighbors to make sure they got the first call before I had to throw what I could into the car, including Cauliflower and Asparagus, my four-legged companions, and join the line of cars heading south towards the highway to either turn east towards the ski resort and/or Denver, or west towards the areas the fire had already burned and therefore were not in great danger. The fire had been heading consistently towards the north and northwest since its start a week prior.
I was able to collect some items of personal value, including Grandpa’s Western wear, but lost the vast majority of my belongings, which really came down to books and clothes, but also included my instruments, letters from penpals over the last 15 years, and other tchotchkes collected in my travels both from places and people. They are, of course, irreplaceable, but as a friend reminded me this afternoon: the value wasn’t in the things, and the fire didn’t burn my memories.
While earlier in the evening the sky was blackened by smoke, on the slow but steady drive south (which was after sunset) we could see the flames coming over the ridge, towards our neighborhoods. It was exhila-scary.
After a pit stop at my friend’s motel in Granby to check in with them and to take a break from the traffic, I turned west to stay with two friends in Hot Sulphur Springs, who were the first to text me that evening to tell me to come to them, if only because they have a large yard and plenty of space for the three of us.
On Thursday we received a pre-evacuation notice for all of central Grand County due to the fire and smoke making a u-turn with southwardly winds. We suspected it was mainly the sheriff realizing he had screwed up with Grand Lake by giving us just 15 minutes to evacuate and was now playing it safe by giving pre-evacuation orders well in advance of any real danger, but my friends and I decided to load up our three dogs and two cats into three vehicles and drive farther south to stay with friends on their ranch outside of Silverthorne, which is just east of Breckenridge on I-70.
The ranch has limited internet and no cell service, which was a boon in this time of epic misinformation and petty bickering. While we were certainly concerned for the fate of our communities, we were relieved to not have to sift through mounds of Facebook bullshit piled higher and deeper to find out the news – with a TV in nearly every room of the house we had the actual news media to do that for us.
We went into town a couple times each day to run the dogs, check messages, and relax in the Colorado mountain version of a city.
This morning (Saturday) after breakfast we piled into our cars and came back to Grand County.
On each of these drives, Cauli took the passenger seat and after he broke the velcro seal of his carrier during the initial evacuation, Gus took my lap. They rarely could sit in the same room, let alone within three feet of each other in a metal box moving 55 miles an hour down a bumpy mountain road, before this series of unfortunate events, but I’ve come to believe they know, in some way, something stressful and unusual is happening and it is in their best interest to behave. The three of us even slept all on the same bed in a small camper-trailer on the ranch with nary a hiss nor a bark.
Back in Hot Sulphur Springs, our eyes kept to the smoldering ridgeline above the town all afternoon. Between a decrease of fuel and a steady stream of helicopters dumping water, the remaining pockets of fire in our area were extinguished by this evening. Even now the Fire continues to move north and northwest, into Rocky Mountain National Park and beyond, threatening Estes Park and elsewhere on the Front Range (the common name for the eastern slope of the Continental Divide, viz. Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins). Grand County is certainly not out of the burning woods yet, but our fear is greatly diminished from even 24 hours ago.
In the evening of our second night on the ranch I received a call from my neighbor Ryan telling me that his co-worker’s brother-in-law is a Wyoming hotshot (wildland firefighter) who was working in our neighborhood, and who saw our homes . . . not there. The co-worker and I met earlier this summer; on his way out of our region the hotshot Facetimed my neighbor’s co-worker and showed him our street. Ryan trusts his co-worker and I trust Ryan, so despite it being second-hand information to me I believed the report to be accurate.
Note: see earlier note. Below: proof of the destruction and an artistic recreation of Ryan’s and my houses. My house is in blue; his in purple.
Between tackling the various waves of emotions that swept over me Friday evening after receiving the call, I managed to buy new shoelaces for my boots and a nice bottle of scotch to help me process the news. The liquor store even gave me their locals’ discount after learning why I was in such a despondent state whilst perusing their shelves. When in peril, good communities do what they can for their neighbors. Of course, better communities prevent travesties from happening, but we can only move forward.
Also, I needed new shoelaces.
Today I tried to proceed with insurance, etc. but haven’t had the emotional or mental energy to do so past the most basic introduction. However, this evening my host in Hot Sulphur Springs connected me with a friend of hers in Winter Park (the ski resort town in the county) who offered me her condo for an indefinite amount of time. My new host/benefactor expressed to me that she lost her home to a fire when she was in second grade and knows what I am going through (we also share numerous friends who know her through skiing and me through the land trust). The condo is enough for the dog, cat, and myself, and will give me a peace of mind to work through everything that needs to happen to ensure I can rebuild successfully.
Finally, tomorrow a friend of mine from the Adirondacks who is currently based at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs – and who also happens to be a slightly-stereotypical Jewish mother – is coming up with freshly-baked babka and other goodies from her local Arab market to help me line out my priorities for the next day, week, and month. Apparently being a major in the US Army trains you to deal with emergencies in a calm and precise fashion, and she will attempt to pass on those skills to me over Lebanese hummus and Jewish pastries.
I will be pursuing rebuilding my cabin, with the help of the various designers and engineers in my life.
I believe you are now more or less caught up. I am keeping a journal of sorts (some of this email is lifted from those pages), but between not sleeping well and not sleeping at all, the journal has taken the form of an extended outline you’d find in a remedial high school English class, waiting to be expanded upon at a later date.
You are welcome to call, text, or email if you’d like, but please be patient if I don’t respond promptly. As access to the Town of Grand Lake is closed and normality will likely not resume for some time, I do have permission (given by me, as the executive director) to accept mail at my office PO Box, which is checked regularly (ideally daily, realistically bidiurnally).
If you would like to send me something, please message me directly.
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