Burned, battered and buoyant: Stories from 2020’s Grizzly Creek Fire
Editor’s note: Ready for 2020 to be over? Yeah, so are we — but not before highlighting some of the bright spots in a year unlike any other. Instead of doing a typical look back at the news of 2020, we’re focusing on the stories that showcased the indomitable spirit of our mountain community during a difficult time.
It wasn’t until Dec. 18 that the U.S. Forest Service officially declared the Grizzly Creek Fire 100% contained.
The human-caused fire was ignited in the Interstate 70 median back on Aug. 10 and eventually burned 32,631 acres. Two Type 1 incident management teams — Great Basin and Alaska — were called in to battle the blaze along with numerous state and local firefighters. For more than a week, I-70 through Glenwood Canyon was closed to traffic which led motorists to make ill-advised decisions to attempt to navigate through the area via Cottonwood Pass or Crooked Creek Road.
On several evenings in mid August, a drive through the Two Rivers community in Dotsero found many residents sitting on front porches, warily watching flames that crept closer and closer. Evacuated residents of Sweetwater and the Colorado River Road waited helplessly for word about whether or not their homes remained standing.
Even though it hasn’t been a direct fire threat for months, the aftermath of the Grizzly Creek blaze brings an increased danger of landslides in the narrow Glenwood Canyon corridor, as well as long-term financial, water quality and environmental impacts.
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Fires blacken the landscape and the psyche, but as Harry Potter’s philosophical headmaster Albus Dumbledore noted “Happiness can still be found in the darkest of times, if we just remember to turn on the lights.”
For all the troubling stories that came out of the Grizzly Creek Fire, there were triumphant tales too — neighbors helping neighbors, the community’s outpouring of support for fighters, the first sprigs of greenery sprouting from the burn scars. As we close out this chapter of Eagle County history, here is a look back at some of those stories.
The Hanging Lake miracle
Things didn’t look good for one of the area’s most popular hiking destinations when the Grizzly Creek burn area map was compiled Aug. 13. The popular Hanging Lake area was located squarely within the boundaries.
On Aug. 14, White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams and Marcia Gilles, deputy district ranger for the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, were on board an operations flight that passed over the area. As the account in the Glenwood Post Independent noted, “They were fully prepared for a sinking feeling, not knowing the fate of the iconic lake and surrounding features — a visit to which could be described as a pilgrimage for some people, rather than a mere day-hike destination.”
“From the get-go, we were not able to do any fire suppression or mitigation or anything in Hanging Lake,” Fitzwilliams said, describing those early days of the fire. “There were too many other higher priorities — people’s homes, the freeway, power lines … so we were just holding our breath.”
During the Aug. 14 flyover, Fitzwilliams and Giles said much of the fire area was hardly visible through the thick smoke.
“As we got closer to Hanging Lake, we both felt this anxiety, because we were afraid of what we were going to see,” Fitzwilliams said. “All of the sudden the smoke parted and we looked down, and that lake looked as tranquil as it always does.” High fives and fist bumps were flying inside the aircraft.
Ground crews on the Hanging Lake Trail also found reason to celebrate. Virtually none of the trail infrastructure was damaged, including all seven bridges, signs, the historic Civilian Conservation Corps shelter and the boardwalk along the south edge of the lake, Giles said in the Post Independent story.
“We keep calling it a miracle, that not a sin gle ember affected any of that,” Giles said, describing scorched areas and active hot spots right next to some of the bridges and even under the boardwalk. “The lake itself was just as gorgeous and blue as ever, the log, everything, was still intact.”
Unearthing a family treasure
The last thing that Ryan Halvorson, a task force leader working on the Grizzly Creek Fire, expected while working fire lines near Coffee Pot Spring was to discover a family heirloom that had been missing for 30 years.
Halvorson, of Tenstrike, Minnesota, said he was out scouting line on the fire looking for hot spots when he came across a hunting knife “in an island of green.” The name “Jim Skoronsky” was stamped on the knife’s handle.
Halvorson figured the knife, given its condition, had been in the woods for maybe three to five years. But after Googling Skoronsky — who now resides in Arizona — and tracking him down on Facebook, leading to text messages and eventually a phone call, Halvorson found out its owner had lost it back in the 1980s.
Skoronsky reported that his father had fashioned the custom knife and that it was part of a matched set. He was shocked to learn his long-lost heirloom had been found.
“It was just a surreal moment,” Skoronsky said. “It was unbelievable. He sent me three pictures right from Coffee Pot Springs (sic) and I couldn’t believe, after that many years laying there, and everything that goes on in Colorado, it was probably covered in 10 feet of snow for 30 years and it’s still in pretty good shape.”
Halvorson was able to meet up Skoronsky’s daughter to return the knife to its rightful owner.
Fleeing fire with a whole menagerie
On Aug. 13, the Stephens family was eating dinner at their Sweetwater home, watching the Grizzly Creek Fire from their deck.
Then everything changed on a dime.
“We went from a nice, leisurely evening to ‘You need to get out now,’” Bill Stephens said.
The Stephens family has called the Sweetwater area home for four generations, and while they had discussed the possibility of a fire evacuation, it had never happened to the family. When the evacuation order came down they were faced with the same dilemma that all homeowners fleeing a fire face — what vital items should we grab? But the family also had another challenge — what to do with five horses, 20 chickens, three dogs and two cats?
“I had called the county extension office and asked if we could bring our animals to the fairgrounds. As a family, we decided that would be the best place,” Mary Stephens said.
The response from Eagle County was a definite “yes” and the Stephens’ animals weren’t the only livestock evacuees at the site.
According to Denyse Schrenker from the Eagle County Colorado State University Extension Office, the fairgrounds hosted 58 horses and mules and 40 chickens during the Grizzly Creek Fire. There were 29 animal stalls occupied for a couple of weeks.
Schrenker said that when she heard about the Sweetwater evacuations around 6 p.m. Aug. 13, county emergency management specifically asked that the fairgrounds open to house livestock.
“I headed out to the fair-grounds at about 9 a.m. to get things ready to check-in animals and people started trickling in from then to about 3:30 a.m.” Schrenker said. More animals arrived the following day.
While the situation was obviously chaotic, Schrenker said the whole evacuation was surprisingly calm.
“Everyone came together and helped out their neighbors as a community. People were really pitching in together,” Schrenker said.
The Stephens family agreed, thanking the firefighters, county staff, law enforcement, Colorado Department of Transportation workers and their many friends and neighbors who helped them weather a difficult time.
“I can’t say enough about the people around here. You really find out how this community can come together,” said Bill Stephens.