One of the most destructive wildfires in Colorado history, the East Troublesome Fire began on October 14, 2020, in the central Rocky Mountains east of Troublesome Creek in Grand County. A week later, high winds whipped the fire into a 100,000-acre inferno racing northeast through Grand Lake and into Rocky Mountain National Park. By the time snows and colder temperatures halted the fire in late October, it had killed two people, destroyed more than 400 houses and other structures, and burned 193,812 acres, making it the second-largest fire in state history.
The fire is believed to be human-caused but remains under investigation. Parts of Rocky Mountain National Park remained closed through the week of Thanksgiving. The East Troublesome Fire was the third record-breaking fire of 2020, with all three blazes surpassing 130,000 acres.
Colorado’s 2020 fire season got off to a late start, but fires worsened as a hot, dry summer turned to a dry, warm fall with frequent Red Flag warnings. The Pine Gulch Fire began on July 31 north of Grand Junction and grew to 139,000 acres, while the smaller Grizzly Creek blaze near Glenwood Springs shut down Interstate 70 for weeks. Those fires were fully contained by September. In October the Cameron Peak Fire west of Fort Collins became the largest blaze in state history and Colorado’s first wildfire to surpass 200,000 acres.
As the aspen trees turned in Grand County that fall, the entire state was still in a moderate drought, and the drought in the central Rockies became extreme. The Williams Fork Fire still burned on some 12,000 acres in southern Grand County, its smoke plume visible from I-70. Even as night temperatures reached below freezing, higher daytime temperatures, strong winds, and low humidity meant that the threat of additional fires remained high.
A Troublesome Fire
It is not yet known what started the fire east of Troublesome Creek on October 14, but one week later it went on one of the most extraordinary runs in Colorado fire history. The evening of October 21 brought high winds that sent the 25,000-acre fire racing northeast at a rate of 6,000 acres per hour. By the time dawn broke on October 22, it had grown to 125,000 acres, burning through the town of Grand Lake, into Rocky Mountain National Park, and leaving dozens of charred houses and other buildings in its wake. The entire communities of Grand Lake and Granby were evacuated, along with hundreds of other residents from the surrounding area.
Some 300 firefighting personnel were battling the blaze, but they had managed only 5 percent containment. Crew leaders reported that “weather, terrain, and beetle-killed lodgepole pine contributed” to the East Troublesome Fire’s terrifying run on October 21–22. Even under those conditions, however, officials noted that they never expected runs of 6,000 acres per hour, which amounted to the biggest blowup recorded in the modern fire history of Colorado. It was late in the season and the fire in many places was above 9,000 feet in elevation, burning in areas that would typically have colder daytime temperatures and snow. On the afternoon of October 22, the fire crossed the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park and added another 50,000 acres, becoming the second-largest fire in state history. The fire's scaling of the Great Divide prompted mandatory evacuation orders for the entire town of Estes Park, displacing some 6,500 people.
On October 24, authorities found out that not everyone had evacuated the fire area when they recovered the bodies of Lyle and Marilyn Hileman, a couple in their eighties who had stayed in their home near Grand Lake. Meanwhile, near the popular Bear Lake Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, anxious firefighters fought the East Troublesome Fire under a Red Flag warning all day. Their main objective was to defend Estes Park from the fire, which was being pushed eastward by a cold front blowing in with gusts up to sixty miles per hour. Finally, the front brought snow in the evening, halting the fire's advance toward the city.
Containment slowly progressed as snow continued to hit the burned area in November. By November 19, the East Troublesome Fire was 72 percent contained. Although it was still not extinguished by Thanksgiving, the fire no longer threatened communities.
Role of Climate Change
Before the twenty-first century, Colorado had not seen a fire grow beyond 100,000 acres. Since 2000, however, there have been six, and three of them occurred in 2020. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from human fossil fuel consumption over the last two centuries has resulted in higher average temperatures that are accelerating a range of natural cycles. Fires like the East Troublesome are products of this climate shift and reflect a new era of fire danger in Colorado. As summers and droughts last longer and winter snow melts off earlier, bigger, later fires at higher altitudes are more likely to occur.