Fire educator works to teach others after loss of her home
Grand Fire Protection District No. 1 Assistant Fire Chief Schelly Olson has devoted the past 13 years of her professional life to fighting, learning, teaching and educating the public about fires.
Still, her family’s home northwest of Grand Lake burned completely last October during the East Troublesome Fire. Nothing was left but the concrete foundation and some metal items. Even toilets were pulverized, Olson said, an indication of the extreme heat that consumed the 4,100-square-foot custom log home.
“It’s crazy. You spend your career working on wildfire preparedness, then it happens to you,” Olson said. “It’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever gone through professionally and personally.”
The East Troublesome Fire, which grew to become the second largest wildfire in Colorado history, started 15 miles northeast of Kremmling late in the fire season Oct. 14, 2020. Of the 366 homes burned, eight belonged to first responders, Olson said.
Considering her extensive training, Olson wondered if she could have done something different to save her family’s home, built in 2004. But, unfortunately, fire conditions the evening of Oct. 21 were extraordinary for the Colorado high country, where her home was located at 8,600 feet in elevation. The nearby weather station reported at 10 p.m. that winds were 100 miles per hour, relative humidity was at 10%, and it was 72 degrees.
Olson will share her fire lessons learned as a presenter at the final session of this year’s Routt County Wildfire Mitigation Conference on Thursday. The webinar titled “Community Lessons Learned — Preparedness and Recovery” starts at 5 p.m. Attendees can preregister at RouttWildfire.org, which also links to recordings of the first three webinars and other resources.
“My message to Routt and Grand counties is that, although not all fires are like the East Troublesome Fire, we still need to be both vigilant and diligent about doing mitigation around our homes if we choose to live in the wildland-urban interface,” said Olson, who serves as chair of the nonprofit Grand County Wildfire Council started in 2013.
When the East Troublesome Fire blew up by some 100,000 acres and swept through neighborhoods, Olson was taking a well-deserved break on a short vacation to Florida with a friend after serving 50 days straight as a public information officer and planning section chief on the Williams Fork Fire, also in Grand County. Her husband, Jeff, at home with the family dog, had not signed up for CodeRED emergency alerts on his cellphone. Family members called to tell him of the preevacuation order.
Then Schelly Olson received a call from a fire captain on scene monitoring the severity of the situation who said, “Tell Jeff to get out now.” She called her husband, who was outside with smoke all around frantically trying to remove flammable items from the home’s deck. He jumped in the family SUV, driving away south toward Granby as he could see an orange glow in the distance. The sound of the fire was roaring like a speeding freight train.
“Everyone thought they had more time,” Schelly said. “People just did not realize how quickly the fire was going to move, how extreme it was going to be and how hot it was going to get.”
The fire educator urges all residents to register all phone lines with local emergency notification systems. For Routt County, registration is not automatic for any phone except for CenturyLink and Comcast landlines, according to Routt County Emergency Management officials. All residents are urged to opt-in their cell numbers at RouttCountyAlerts.com.
Schelly said her most precious losses in the fire were her great-grandparents’ heirlooms and her scrapbooks filled with family memories and childhood drawings from her two now-grown daughters. On the positive side, the family home was well insured, and the Grand County Wildfire Emergency Fund established at the Grand Foundation provided significant assistance in the community.
Aaron Voos, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Forest Service, noted of the East Troublesome Fire ignition, “We cannot say that it was human caused due to the ongoing investigation.” Schelly said the Grand County Sheriff is seeking approval to increase the fines for illegal fires from $100 to $500 for the first offense.
Olson urges residents to be thorough with fire mitigation efforts in the home ignition zone, such as cleaning out dead leaves and dried pine needles from house gutters, “because even the smallest thing could be an ignition point.”
“You can’t control where the embers from the wildfire will land, but you can control what will happen when they do land,” Schelly said.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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