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After The East Troublesome Wildfire Destroyed Parts Of Colorado, Olympian Grace Latz Is Helping Her Community Recover

By Peggy Shinn | Dec. 01, 2020, 12:39 p.m. (ET)

(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.

My Olympic blazer means more to me than the boat.

Grace Latz, Rowing

East Troublesome Fire Blowup
When the East Troublesome fire started on October 14, Latz and Zane kept their eye on it. With the Cameron Peak fire having burned 208,913 acres in north central Colorado, they knew how big wildfires could get during this dry year. After witnessing smoke from the Cameron Peak fire, which destroyed 222 homes and cabins, during drives into Rocky Mountain National Park earlier in the fall, Latz and Zane had watched Fire in Paradise, a documentary about the 2018 Camp Fire that wiped out the town of Paradise and is to date California’s deadliest wildfire. 

The film got them thinking: What would they take if they 12 hours to evacuate versus 12 minutes? What are things that can never be replaced? They made lists on their cellphones—family photos, important documents, and Latz’s Olympic blazer. 

“We had things lined up in the hallway so that if we got the call, we could move quickly,” said Latz.

They followed daily briefings about the East Troublesome fire. But no alarms had been raised. Fire crews believed the fire would stall at Route 125—a north-south rural highway about five miles due west of Grand Lake that would act as a fire line.

On Wednesday, October 21, the evening briefing reported that the fire had jumped Route 125 and was heading eastward.

Still, Latz was not yet alarmed due to the fire’s previous slow advancement, so she went to yoga class. Within 15 minutes, the class participants’ mobile phones went off with a reverse 911 message—Grand Lake was issued a pre-evacuation notice. 

Latz drove home right away and on route, her phone sounded again, this time with a mandatory evacuation notice. When she arrived, the couple started loading into their cars the items that they had staged in their hallway. Zane grabbed their dog, Pepper.

“Maybe this is the athlete in me,” said Latz, “but I feel like athletes are trained to think about how to prepare for uncomfortable, less-than-ideal situations and create the best possible outcome. Even though it’s unpleasant to think about a fire coming up to your house, I’m grateful that we thought about what we would need and want and set things aside in our hallway.”

Just as they had everything loaded, firefighters drove into their neighborhood saying, “You don’t have five minutes, we don’t know where the fire is, we need to watch you leave.”

They drove out of their neighborhood and turned south, heading to a friend’s house in nearby Granby. Evacuating during a pandemic added another layer of angst for everyone. But they had no choice.

“It’s very eerie to be driving down the same road you always do, and on the left, it looks perfectly normal except for a dark sky,” said Latz about their drive to Granby. “Then on the right, everything is engulfed in flames.”

The fire was so hot and smokey that the pyrocumulonimbus cloud it created reached a staggering 40,000 feet. Three days later, an imaging spectroradiometer on one of NASA’s satellites picked up visible smoke from the East Troublesome fire over the Mediterranean Sea.

The next day, residents of Granby received a pre-evacuation notice. Latz and Zane helped a few Granby locals prepare to evacuate, then drove toward Denver. Friends from the rowing community had offered them a place to stay in Evergreen, a mountain suburb west of Denver. Other contacts at the USOPC offered their homes as well.

“It was great to have this expanded team beyond who I’ve met through rowing,” said Latz. “It was calming to know that there were places we could go if we had to keep moving.”

Over the next 10 days, the couple spent sleepless nights in Evergreen wondering if their house had survived. Latz also helped with a barrage of social media posts, verifying and sharing factual information about the fire and evacuation, as well as helping Grand Lake residents find emergency resources. Many of the 4,000 who evacuated on October 21 had left with only the clothes on their backs. 

Then, three days after the fire blew up, a snowstorm hit Colorado. The added moisture helped slow the fire—although even now, it is only 72 percent contained. But the cold threatened to burst pipes in homes that had been spared by the fire. 

A county-hired contractor contacted Latz to ask for permission to enter their house and turn off the water.

“Well, I guess our house is still there,” they realized.

To date, the East Troublesome Fire has burned 193,812 acres—302.8 square miles, or one-quarter the size of Rhode Island. Fortunately, it did not get within a half-mile of Latz and Zane’s neighborhood, and they are grateful for the efforts of first responders. They returned home on Halloween.

The East Troublesome fire also spared Grand Lake’s historic downtown. But some area residents were not as lucky. 

Many real estate agents in town lost their own homes, said Latz, as did eight firefighters from the local fire department. Others lost their homes, but are grateful that their businesses are still standing in town. Of the 366 destroyed homes, 32 were mobile homes—most, if not all, uninsured.

Compounding recovery is the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s difficult to do some of the normal healing you would expect, like gathering together to talk about it or having meetings to decide what priorities to take on,” said Latz. 

Businesses were already hurting from the pandemic. As a national park gateway community, the town thrives on tourism. But during the pandemic lockdown last spring, the park saw 33 percent fewer visitors in April and 77 percent fewer in May after the park started a reservation system to disperse visitor traffic as a COVID-19 safety measure. Making matters worse, the Grand Lake entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park typically sees 85-90 percent less traffic than the Estes Park side—meaning fewer people ventured through Grand Lake each month during 2020.

“It’s a lot that 2020 has thrown at everyone,” said Latz.

With winter approaching, locals hope the surrounding national forest will open to snowmobiling and the local Nordic center is able to groom trails for cross-country skiing.

To date, the Grand County Wildfire Emergency Fund, a part of the Grand Foundation, has raised just over $2 million, with 100% of donations going to support Grand County residents who have been evacuated, displaced, or have lost their residences to wildfire.  

“At this point, we are mapping out our immediate, short term and long-term needs,” the Foundation’s executive director Megan Ledin said via email. 

Immediate needs include giving grants to the Mountain Family Center to purchase grocery, clothing, and furniture gift cards; assisting people with housing needs; and providing a local mental health clinic with $20,000 to provide scholarships to those affected by the fire.
“We’re super grateful that our house is still here,” said Latz. “But the impact of the fire is definitely a big bruise to the community. There is a lot of mountain grit and resilience up here. We’ll recover. The community just needs some help.”

To make a donation to the Grand Foundation’s Grand County Wildfire Emergency Fund, click here. 

For updates about the town’s recovery, follow @gograndlake on Instagram and Facebook.

Peggy Shinn

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.

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Grace Latz