(Left) Photo of the East Troublesome Fire on Oct. 21, 2020 near Grand Lake, Colorado. (Right) Grace Latz poses with her Ralph Lauren Opening Ceremony jacket from the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
When Grace Latz and her husband Jules Zane moved to Grand Lake, Colorado, shortly after the 2016 Olympian retired from rowing, she knew that wildfires were part of the Colorado mountain ecosystem. But living near the town’s lakes, she did not think a fire would get that close. And when fires had flared up in the vicinity in previous years, they had been brought under control.
But not the East Troublesome fire. Started on October 14 (cause still under investigation) northwest of Hot Sulphur Springs—about 25 miles due west of Grand Lake and about 100 miles northwest of Denver—the fire exploded on the night of October 21, growing at a rate of 100 acres per minute. It was the biggest blow-up in Colorado history.
“It was like a bomb,” said Latz, who competed in the women’s quad at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, finishing fifth. “You couldn’t outrun it.”
Within 24 hours, the East Troublesome fire grew over 100,000 acres and became the second largest wildfire in Colorado history—second only to the Cameron Peak fire burning several miles to the northeast. At home in Grand Lake, Latz and Zane had just a few minutes to evacuate.
One of the items that Latz grabbed: her navy blue Team USA Ralph Lauren blazer from the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Left behind: her single scull, which she rows recreationally on the lakes in the area.
“My Olympic blazer means more to me than the boat,” Latz said by phone. A boat, after all, can be replaced, but not the memories associated with the blazer.
By that evening, the fire had hopped the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and was barreling toward the town of Estes Park. The media focused on the impending peril and evacuation of Estes Park, the busiest gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.
In the end, Estes Park was spared. But on the quieter western side of Rocky Mountain National Park—in Grand Lake and vicinity—two people died, and the fire destroyed 366 homes, and 189 secondary structures (barns, garages, sheds, etc.). Of the homes, 154 were primary residences—25 percent were uninsured. The park’s Grand Lake entrance station office was completely destroyed and over 30,000 acres burned in the national park.
With the holidays approaching, hundreds of families are homeless, and the town and surrounding area, already struggling to navigate economic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is faced with over $190 millions of dollars (and counting) in fire damage (damage assessments are ongoing).
With just over $2 million raised so far by the Grand Foundation’s Grand County Wildfire Relief Fund, Latz wants to bring more attention to her community and the rugged, less-trafficked side of Rocky Mountain National Park, which Latz pointed out is “magical” in winter as well as summer.
The Move to Grand Lake
Latz and Zane moved to Grand Lake in 2018. A two-time world championship medalist, Latz, now 32, was ready to move to the next chapter of her life, and Grand Lake seemed like the perfect place. She had visited Grand Lake with her family since she was a toddler (from their home in Michigan), and Latz had learned to alpine ski at nearby Winter Park Resort.
“The plan was to move here when I stopped training,” said Latz, who works for the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce. “We knew this would be a great place to decompress and connect with nature. It’s a good transition after a competitive, pressure-cooker lifestyle.”
In the summer, they could row on Grand Lake’s lakes, hike, and bike. When winter came, they skied—alpine and cross-country—snowboarded and snowshoed.
“I really love winter sports, and Grand Lake is ideal for that,” Latz added. “As a kid, I dreamed about becoming a winter Olympian, given how much I loved doing anything in the snow up here. For all my love of winter, I laugh that I became a summer Olympian.” (Latz walked-on to the University of Wisconsin’s women’s rowing team her freshman year.)
The weather is also ideal, with over 300 sunny days a year. But summer 2020 was one of the driest in memory in Grand County. In the month of August, the county received only 30 percent of its average rainfall, and according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, two-thirds of the county is experiencing extreme drought. The county has also been hit hard by the mountain pine beetle, which has killed 3.4 million acres of lodgepole pines in Colorado—an area roughly the size of Connecticut. With so much dead timber littering the hillsides, the already arid landscape was a tinderbox.