Stephens family recount fleeing Grizzly Creek Fire with 5 horses, 20 chickens, 3 dogs and 2 cats
Evacuation notice found Stephens family looking for shelter
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.
First, their daughter received a text from her future mother-in-law saying she had heard the Sweetwater area was being evacuated. Cell service is spotty in the area, but then all the Stephens’ family phones started buzzing. Then the family’s land line started ringing.
“In four generations, my family has never been evacuated until this fire but we have always talked about the possibility,” Bill said. “We were watching the fire, assuming we were OK because of Deep Creek Canyon and the barriers it would have to cross.”
That’s not to say the family was unconcerned.
“We were all commenting on how ominous the sky was,” said Bill’s wife, Mary Stephens. “It looked very different from the other nights. It looked a lot closer.”
Their general anxiousness changed to action after the Stephens got official word of the evacuation order.
“That experience was overwhelming,” Mary said. “I can guarantee you, if our house makes it through this fire, we are going to have a better plan for the future.”
“Our neighbors and friends were so wonderful, offering to help,” she continued. “But none of us could think straight about what we needed.”
Where to go?
An emergency fire evacuation isn’t easy for anyone, but for the people of Sweetwater it was especially trying. Many of the families in that area have horses, mules, cattle, sheep and other livestock so it wasn’t just a matter of locating vital paperwork, packing up the photo albums and grabbing the pets.
Along with Stephens family of humans, five horses, 20 chickens, three dogs and two cats also had to flee. One of the biggest decisions that people face as they evacuate their homes is basic — Where are we headed? The Stephens had to find a place for not only themselves but for all those animals.
“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 said.
The response from Eagle County was a definite “yes.” 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 has hosted 58 horses and mules and 40 chickens during the Grizzly Creek Fire. There were 29 animal stalls occupied over the past week.
Schrenker heard about the Sweetwater evacuations around 6 p.m. Aug. 13 and county emergency management specifically asked that the fairgrounds open to house livestock.
“I headed out to the fairgrounds 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 on the following day.
“That first night a few of the horses were pretty nervous but they settled in pretty well. I was surprised,” she said. “I am sure they probably had more problems on the loading end.”
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 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 the past week.
“I have a lot of thank-you letters to write,” Bill said. “I can’t say enough about the people around here. You really find out how this community can come together.”
The Stephens have been inundated with offers to help. Friends volunteered to bring up trailers to help the family move valuables from their home and offered to pasture their horses while the family is evacuated.
Mary noted one family friend stopped by because he knew the Stephenses had purchased animals at the Eagle County Junior Livestock Sale and if electric power was interrupted, they could lose thousands of dollars worth of frozen meat. The friend helped unload two freezers, moved them into his trailer, reloaded them and now has them plugged in at his shop in Eagle.
“This has been a very frustrating and exhausting experience, but there are so many incredible families in this valley,” Mary said.
Along with worries about their own Sweetwater home, Bill and Mary were concerned that Bill’s parents safely evacuated from the area and that their business was as secured as possible. Stephens Nursery is located at the mouth of the Colorado River Road at Dotsero.
Since the evacuation, Mary and her daughters Katie and Malorie have been camping out at the Eagle County Fairgrounds.
“We have had a lot of people invite us to stay at their homes, but it just seemed easier to stay there to take care of the animals,” Mary said. “The animals are chilling but our horses are getting to the point where they are ready to be somewhere different. I don’t blame them. If this goes on much long, I may take up someone on their offer of pasture.”
Bill and his son Luke have been splitting time between the fairgrounds and Sweetwater. Their days are spent doing fire mitigation work around their home and business. Mary noted there’s a big irony in what’s happening at the nursery right now.
“Right now we are watering everything but the flowers. We are watering all the buildings and the surrounding grounds,” Mary said.
“I am receiving calls from other nurseries and other landscaping companies asking how they can help out,” Bill said. “That is humbling.”
Bill strongly believes that Sweetwater residents need to examine the experiences of the Grizzly Creek Fire to be better prepared if another calamity strikes the neighborhood.
“We learned a lot from this fire. We learned how slow it is for people to get out,” Bill said. “I have a whole new perspective of where I live and what it takes to evacuate.”
And while they have always loved this valley they call home, today the Stephens have an even deeper appreciation for their community.
“It makes you value the things you have and realize what is important,” Bill concluded. “It is a heartwarming thing to watch this community work together.”