GRAND LAKE, Colo. — It's hard to forget the images of flames leaping across the treetops last month as the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County exploded from a 20,000-acre fire to more than 100,000 acres overnight.
For the more than 300 families who lost their homes, their paradise was gone in a matter of minutes.
“This is paradise,” said John Joyce, who retired to Grand County from Texas a few years ago.
There’s no question why they live here, and yet, sometimes paradise is prone to some of mother nature’s most catastrophic events.
“It’s just melted, bent glass,” Joyce said while sifting through the ash. “We lost everything. Everything we had and owned was here.”
While so many of Joyce’s friends and neighbors in the Columbine Lake neighborhood west of Grand Lake fled for their lives that October night, Joyce and his wife were somewhat lucky; they were on a flight to visit his brother in Reno, Nevada. Somewhat lucky.
“We flew over the fire,” Joyce said. “And my wife looked down and she could see it from the airplane. And she looked over at me and her face dropped. And my face dropped because we knew. We knew it was probably going to be gone.”
John and his wife did lose their home, as did several of their neighbors.
“I had a baseball card collection that I had collected as a kid,” Joyce said. “It was inside the house in a little safe inside a big safe, and it burned. It was ash.”
Grand Lake Fire Marshal Dan Mayer and at least four of his crews worked to defend the Columbine Lake neighborhood that night.
“At first, it made me feel like when you see a hurricane forecast and the hurricane’s coming at you,” Mayer said. “You just can’t do anything about it.”
When residents evacuated, Mayer and his team stayed behind.
“As firefighters, we usually take our time rolling up hose after a house fire,” Mayer said. “You’re not used to grabbing whatever you can and throwing it back on an engine as quick as you can. We had hose draped all over every truck we had.”
They kept moving home to home all night long against a raging inferno.
“It had its own weather system inside of it,” Mayer said. “At one point, my truck said it was 82 degrees out here in the middle of the night.”
And what his crews accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.
“I had no concept of what time it was, really,” Mayer said. “We were just working really hard. Once our momentum started building, it was like — you know — we can save part of this neighborhood.”
Of the 456 homes in Columbine Lake, only 27 were lost.
“We lost 6 percent,” said HOA president Mark Woltkamp, who believes the firefighters were heroic. “It was throwing little fire-bombs or fire missiles around. Just across the way there are no burned homes and then there’s a little circle there with three burned homes.”
Joyce is equally amazed by the firefighting efforts.
“Many of these firefighters, there’s at least seven that I know of, that lost their homes,” Joyce said. “And they knew it. And they stayed up here. They have such a great sense of duty and care for this community.”
And the community is already well on its way to rebuilding.
“We were flooded with offers to help,” Woltkamp said. “Anywhere from, 'You can stay at my cabin if you need to, I’ll provide meals, I have a truck, I have a chainsaw.'”
“One guy pulls up and he says, ‘I’ve been checking on a roof at someone’s house.’ He’s a roofing contractor and says, ‘You need help? I have an hour.’ He stayed for three," Joyce said.
Joyce says the owner of Bighorn Construction Services, Dan Fairbanks, dropped at least 20 projects he was working on to come help fire victims.
“He said, ‘I’m going to help five people that lost everything,’ and that’s what he’s doing. He’s rebuilding five of these homes while putting all of his other projects on hold for the next year,” Joyce said. “I want to make sure everyone knows who he is, because he’s an angel. This what this community is about; this is what America’s about. There’s so much goodness.”
Goodness helping to restore what is many people's paradise.
“It is paradise up here. We’re so blessed,” Joyce said.
So many of you have stepped up to help these wildfire victims by donating to our Denver7 Gives fund. You've helped us raise more than $220,000. We are staying in touch with volunteers and fire victims to make sure every dollar we raised goes to those families in need. We'll keep you updated.
Denver7 features the stories of people who need help and now you can help them with a cash donation through Denver7 Gives. One hundred percent of contributions to the fund will be used to help people in our local community.