The day the fire started I think all of us in the Grand County area quickly came to the conclusion that our worst fears had inevitably become reality. The nightmare of the subconscious flames engulfing everything in its wake was now a conscious figure protruding into the heavens in the form of an infinitely growing, billowy, dark mass. A dark mass with endless fuel provided by the decades of ever amassing beetle kill.
The beetle kill had accumulated everywhere, most significantly in the National Forest areas. Some of the dead trees were still standing naked, for all the needles covering each limb had long ago been dispersed over the grounds surrounding each tree. Other trees lie on the ground as an impassable force, cris crossed 4-5 feet high as you gazed into the forest of what used to be passable ground. The rest of the long deceased trees remain lurking overhead waiting at any moment to make its final decent to the earth in order to start its new job with in the ecosystem.
I am not even sure when the fire started anymore. All I remember is one date, October 21st. Once the fire had originally lit I remember organizing for the emergency case situation. Most important, the relocation of our herd of 27 horses. After that we all put together a personal emergency bag of all necessities for a weeks living along with any and all important documents. We all placed our bags aside and thought we were ready to go if all hell broke loose.
We transported the horses long before the fire was close enough to put us in a pre evacuation zone. This was very important to us so that all we had to do was focus on family. Days went by with out any real threat and it being October, we shouldn’t really have to worry as we could get a foot of snow any day. We were watching the daily briefings on facebook and it all looked very favorable for almost all who were in ‘threatened” areas.
Days continued to pass, the fire grew, but still everything was feeling very safe. The fire moved slowly and the briefings kept saying they had great plans to secure the fire. We were all starting to feel an odd sense that this was the new normal. Sure some days were super smoky and other days the plume was impressively massive, but based on all the days prior a sense of security started to set in.
We all continued on with life as per usual, while in the back of our minds thinking, if this fire gets out of control everything will be ash. All the work, time, money, and sweat that went into so many things would be gone. I remember watching people out on their boats enjoying a good lake day, others working on redoing a roof on an old cabin, and even people putting up the framing to a new house. Meanwhile, I was traveling to another town working some newly purchased wild horses that needed to get on the payroll before the ground wasn’t safe to start them on. Everything felt normal to us locals and for most full timers, time off to relocate our lives wasn’t an option.
Even on the 21st, I was out riding horses while watching the plume go crazy, thinking that doesn’t look good. I was up at 5 am taking a few phone calls before heading out to work through all the horses and check on the herd. From there, I headed home to chill for a second before taking another call from 6-7pm. I arrived home just before 5 pm, parked my truck and took a moment to linger in the beauty of the smoke plume covering the valley that evening with the sun lowering towards the mountains. I went inside to grab myself some food before sitting down to watch the daily briefing on the fire. Just a normal day during the whole ordeal really, until I finished the briefing that is.
The briefing was highly disturbing in many ways, but the most prevalent was the fact that the fire had crossed hwy 125 and was already to the mountain called Little Gravel. The other odd fact to me was that the fire was completely out of control, while the people doing the briefing were just as casual as usual. In other words they were not worried about the fire at all. I just laughed after it finished and told the family to cancel dinner plans because we were not going to be sleeping here tonight. I finished up my snack then headed up to my office to take a scheduled phone call.
I went into the call knowing I had everything I needed pre packed ready to go. After the briefing, time itself seemed to slow down into a weird hallucinogenic state in which felt like an out of body experience. Fifteen minutes into the call, it was really starting to get interesting.
6:15 pm the one window outside the office space was slowly starting to darken, the sky was turning pitch black. The sight was as if a black fog rolled into the valley turning day to night almost instantaneously, even though the sun wasn’t supposed to recede for another hour. This is when the apocalyptic feeling of watching the plume accumulate the weeks prior took on a whole new feel. Before it was just an orange sheet of light covering the land under the wind blown smoke screen, but even then the sun forced itself through the haze. Now the smoke not only blocked out the sun, but it consumed the entirety of the valley.
6:30 pm the smell of smoke seeped its way through the house and the winds had picked up in a very unusual way. I didn’t think much of it as it was nothing unusual to the day to day fire life in the valley.
6:45 pm was when things became clear that we were going to have to leave the house sooner than later. The house began to intensely reek of a smoke. From this point I could taste the smoke, smoke that wasn’t just from a friendly campfire nor a distant fire. The smoke morphed into something completely different. The fire now created a physical solid you could grasp right out of the air. The creation of this physical form of smoke came from a fire that was totally incinerating it’s prey and projecting its remains into the forward path of its future victims.
The house started to rumble as if there was the most epic thunder happening right over head. The winds were swirling, gusts in every direction and seemingly coming out of the ground upwards. Watching out the window I felt I was watching a blustery blizzard of ash and darkness outside. The wind ricochetting ash in every direction, followed by a brief moment of pause where the ash would remain frozen in time as if someone had just hit the pause button on a movie.
6:50 pm the house was rumbling, the wind gusting, and now mild power outages began. I decided to end the call to see if there was any new updates. I grabbed all my work related equipment and was about out the door from the office when I was confronted by pure hysteria. A family member bust into the room saying, “what are you doing, we need to go…….NOW!” You know a lot has gone wrong or is about to go wrong if you ever see this expression in another’s face.
I responded with a nod and they darted off frantically. When I came out to the loft area, looking down onto the living room, it looked like a recently disturbed and very irate ant colony. Boxes were flying out of the house, people scrambling all over the place, wind scattering materials through out the house with the front doors wide open to load vehicles. The scene was the epitome of the perfection of chaos.
I strolled downstairs put my work supplies on my one load of things I had pre packed, loaded it up, and went to help the others. Everyone was scrambling to load up all the last second items before coming to the ever looming departure.
I had come to find out later that during my call, my brothers had called the parents telling them to head out as the fire was just coming over a ridge into the C Lazy U valley where they worked. I also found out that they had delivered a secondary call about 20 minutes after that saying, “Get the **** out of there!” Things I imagine went from bad to worse for everyone after that call.
Hence the facial expressions I saw on everyone’s faces as I was leaving the office to head down to pack. The way I pictured all this happening was a calm, cool, and collected gathering of pre packed items, loading into the vehicles, and heading out the drive. It was about as completely opposite of that as you could have ever imagined.
Right at about that time the environment outside was absolutely unbearable. Between the gale force winds flinging quarter sized ash flakes and massive debris in every direction, the dense smoke was being forced into our lungs. The strangest thing about this moment was the thunder rumbling had now turned into something sounding like an incoming jet engine on one of those massive international commercial planes. I kept snapping my gaze upwards in fear of a massive fireball streaking through the darkness right at us. The vast mountain landscape was no more, the world was collapsing in on us from every side and we didn’t have much time left.
We were all wrapping up the loading process with our heads down trying not to be blown off the hillside like a kite breaking free of its string into oblivion. I remember forcibly leaning into the wind just to cut through it in order to get to the vehicle. We all checked in with each other with a non verbal look as if to ask, you good? Are we all good to go? The eye contact was made with an unspoken thought, as ready as we will ever be I suppose. We all loaded up ready to go.
I stepped in the vehicle to check in on Laura (wife), Roman (3 month old son), and Luna (Dalmatian). “Laura you all good? Do we have everything?” Laura shook her head in a mild form of shock it seemed saying, “I think so?”
I glanced a little closer into the back to confirm we were all set. That’s when I realized, wait where is Luna? She was not in there and my heart sank as she could be anywhere out there right now. For all I knew she is out in the horse meadows getting one last mouthful of horse crap. Even worse, maybe she is terrified and decided to take off into the darkness. There was no way to call for her allowing her to hear me. So if that were the case, what was I to do?
I looked around the truck first, she was not there. I hurried through the front doors checking the kitchen just in case she found some scraps someone dropped on their way out, again nothing. I scanned the great room. I scurried down the stairs calling out her name, no dog came running. I went to our bedroom, called out her name, still nothing. I didn’t turn on the lights right away thinking for sure she would just come out if she herd me calling. I decided to flick the lights on to just be thorough and make sure I didn’t overlook some small detail. Still no Luna, so I strolled around the bed to check her bed. Mind you, as all this is happening it is as if you were trying to call out someone’s name in the middle of a movie theater during the most intense action scene you could imagine.
Sure enough there she was curled into a ball shaking with fear. Which is very unusual, as I used to travel the country and anytime I so much as packed one item she would know we were about to hit the road again so she would not leave my side. The poor girl was terrified, quivering through every muscle. I knelt down to pet on her, I put my forehead down to her just for a second to reassure her everything was ok. I stood up, looked at her, then we headed out as we had done so many times before. We walked up the stairs side by side, through the great room, and stopped right at the front door.
Everything was set we were ready to go, but something made me stop for what seemed like an eternity right there at the entrance into our house. In all actuality it was a mere minute, but in that minute I took in our house one last time knowing this could be farewell. I took one last breath thinking deeply as to what this house was to me, to all of us. I released the long held final breath, said my farewells and thanks to the house of so many amazing memories with all those who matter most to me. I turned, opened the front door and it flung open from the winds making a loud crash against the wall behind it. I leaned into the winds and headed for the truck, closing the door one final time behind me.
We drove out right around 7:05 PM. Just to give you some reference, we came to the highway at about 7:20 pm. We stopped and chatted with our neighbors there making sure they didn’t need any last second help and later they had said our house went up like matchsticks just before 7:30 pm.
Driving down the road out to the highway we passed a few emergency vehicles doing some last second house checks to emergency evacuate anyone who may not have been as informed or aware as we were. As we departed our house I think we all thought, well that’s it. Where should we stay tonight before we get to go back home? Have we called everyone to warn or alert them to get be ready to clear out? We didn’t really know how crazy that fire had really become, until we hit the meadows about half way out to the highway.
The smoke started to clear a bit and for the first time since about 6:30 PM there was some visibility. That’s when the enormity of the situation really hit us all. We could see actual fire crossing over ridge lines into our valley! It wasn’t just one part of the valley it had broached multiple ridge lines. Like water over a damn in slow motion, it visibly crept over the ridge spilling ever more into the valley. This was truly an unstoppable force to not mess with! The feeling of pure wonder hit me, how is this even possible. Is this real life? I have never felt such an overwhelming sensation of amazement before in my life.
The scene only continued once we hit the highway. Fire riddling the whole drive into Granby, houses visibly being torched, emergency vehicles everywhere, and people with that deer in the headlights look on their faces everywhere. The whole drive was full of phone calls to everyone who may be in harms way while we headed to my brothers place in Granby to regroup.
Eventually we all arrived safely and just took a moment to soak it all in. I settled the dog, made sure Laura and Roman were good before heading back outside to watch the fire continue its path. It really felt like a hallucination, or as if you were in a real life movie displaying an apocalyptic scene of an Armageddon moment. Again I wasn’t out there for long, but it felt like hours. I went back inside, sat down completely thoughtless for a bit. Everyone was small talking or on the phone, nothing much was happening as the threat had been put to rest.
As everyone unwound in their own way, it was time to eat and discuss what was next. From this moment on the real nightmare set in. The absolute logistical nightmare of moving forward. Not only for us as a family, but for all who lost their home and for all who were about to impacted by that night of October 21, 2020.