GRAND LAKE, Colo. — An exhibit in Grand Lake will help visitors understand the impact of the East Troublesome Fire while protecting residents from reliving the harrowing disaster.
The exhibit, called Troublesome Stores: Art & Artifacts From The East Troublesome Fire, will include 40 powerful images of the fire alongside text of residents’ stories and artifacts recovered from the ashes.
The East Troublesome Fire blew up in size on Oct. 21, 2020 and winds pushed the flames at a breakneck speed — about 6,000 acres per hour — across the landscape, giving most Grand Lake residents a mere 12 minutes to evacuate. In 24 hours, it grew 140,000 acres.
In total, the fire burned 193,812 acres, making it second-largest fire in Colorado history. More than 350 residential structures were destroyed.
Now, about half a year later, the community is continuing to press toward recovery.
The plan to create the Troublesome Stories exhibit formed in the wake of one too many painful comments made by visitors unaware of the devastating reach of the wildfire.
Emily Hagen, executive director of the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, said the idea to create Troublesome Stories developed after she met with one of her closest friends, who owns an art gallery in town called Studio 8369. The owner lost her entire home in the fire and still struggles to respond to guests who come to her gallery and express their relief that the fire "wasn’t worse," Hagen said.
“She said, ‘I don't know if I'm supposed to wear a T-shirt that says, "Please don't ask me about the fire — I lost my house." Some days I can talk about and some days, I can't. And I wish I had an avenue to still respect our guests and inform them, but not have to do it personally,’” Hagen said.
The exhibit was crafted to do just that – it protects residents from reliving the traumatic experience while educating visitors in a town eager to host them.
Hagen said once this idea started to come to fruition, she contacted Thomas Cooper of Lightbox Images, who had been in town photographing the blaze on Oct. 21, and asked if he was interested in a partnership to show his photography in the exhibit. Cooper agreed, noting that the East Troublesome Fire was unlike one he’d ever seen in his more than 20 years photographing wildfires. Reed Photo in Denver is printing the images at cost, Hagen said.
From there, the project bloomed to encompass not only photography, but personal narratives and memories, plus artifacts residents found in the rubble.
Within 24 hours of announcing the project, Hagen had received a handful of artifacts — a melted swing seat, seared veteran grave markers, a singed wedding teacup — and several people had reached out promising to offer items for the exhibit. About 20 people had already sent her their narratives, which would be shared in text form in the exhibit.
Hagen said the owners of C Lazy U Ranch, a 100-year-old historic ranch that was the setting for hundreds of weddings, plan to donate the bronze plaque that was on the side of the barn. After the fire moved through, it was one of the few items recovered.
“It's scorched and ashy. And, you know, you can still read what it is,” she said. “And they’ll display that alongside a story and a picture of the barn in all its glory, and then also a picture of the barn before the fire came through —the last known picture and you can see the flames behind it. You can tell it's taken in a vehicle as they leave. And that's one example of telling that whole story.”
Grand Lake Mayor Steve Kudron said after the wildfire, the community also wanted to help prevent a similar disaster from happening again, in Grand Lake or elsewhere. In that spirit, the exhibit will also include fire education and prevention information.
"We don't want to look back," Kudron said. "But we do want to remember and not forget."
Hagen said she hopes visitors feel changed after visiting the exhibit, and have a new understanding of how fire impacts communities and why fire bans are important.
“I'm a big believer in the thought process that people really can't understand our regrowth and our resilience without seeing the scope of our loss,” Hagen said.
Visitors are a massive part of the town’s recovery, and Hagen said they are expecting a busy summer season.
With everything from water sports to exploring dozens of trail systems, Grand Lake “in the summer is like grown-up summer camp,” Hagen said. To learn more about visiting, click here.
The Troublesome Stories exhibit is expected to open around Father’s Day at the Pitkin Building, located at Grand Avenue and Pitkin Street in Grand Lake. It is free to all visitors and will stay open for about six months.
To learn more, participate, donate, or volunteer to help, call 970-627-3402 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Any extra funds raised will be donated to a wildfire mitigation nonprofit.