Serving Firefighters During Historic Fires
2020 brought the opportunity to step up and serve our local communities like never before.
The YMCA strengthens communities. We see our mission at work in so many ways but 2020, as challenging as it has been, has been another opportunity for the Y to serve. Unlike other YMCAs, YMCA of the Rockies’ community is spread across the country and even around the world. We’ve gotten creative in how we serve our communities – through respite for healthcare workers during the pandemic, shelter for those displaced by natural disasters across the country, free stays for families dealing with childhood critical illness and so much more, but 2020 brought the opportunity to step up and serve our local communities of Estes Park and Grand County, Colorado like never before.
Colorado is no stranger to wildfires, but this year’s fire season was unparalleled. On August 13, the Cameron Peak Fire started about 18 miles from YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, marking the start of an unforgettable and truly unimaginable series of events. The next day, the Williams Fork Fire started just 10 miles from Snow Mountain Ranch. As the fires grew, winds remained favorable and both YMCA properties remained unthreatened, providing an opportunity for Snow Mountain Ranch to serve the fire personnel arriving from across the country. As the fall season advanced and temperatures dropped, it became unsafe for firefighters to camp like they’d been doing, and they too moved into warm lodging at the Y.
There were times that were more concerning than others for both fires, and fire teams rotated in and out every few weeks. All seemed calm until the Cameron Peak Fire became more active and quickly grew to the largest wildfire in Colorado history. Fire teams that had stayed at Snow Mountain Ranch were excited to discover that YMCA of the Rockies had a center in Estes Park, and they set up a secondary incident command post on property, bringing with them fire crews who were bravely heading out to fight the Cameron Peak Fire. We felt thankful to be able to provide a safe, comfortable and warm place for the fire teams to rest.
As the Cameron Peak Fire grew, it began to threaten the communities surrounding Estes Park. Without hesitation, YMCA of the Rockies staff jumped into action, and warmly welcomed 68 evacuee families and their pets into cabins. As families settled into their cabins at the Estes Park Center, the East Troublesome Fire in Grand County grew over 100,000 acres in a single day, burning through communities between Granby and Grand Lake, quickly becoming the second largest wildfire in Colorado history. Residents were forced to evacuate immediately, many with just the clothes on their backs. Many year-round staff members and their families moved into cabins at Snow Mountain Ranch, and hundreds of firefighters from across the country arrived through the wee hours of the morning to support firefighting efforts. The fire burned through Rocky Mountain National Park and crossed the Continental Divide. In a seemingly impossible series of events, the East Troublesome Fire was threatening both communities where YMCA of the Rockies is located.
At the height of the two largest wildfires in Colorado history, YMCA of the Rockies hosted approximately 680 fire personnel, 199 evacuees and 39 pets between Estes Park Center and Snow Mountain Ranch. Due to the extreme behavior of the East Troublesome Fire, the Estes Park Center was forced to evacuate and Snow Mountain Ranch was put on pre-evacuation notice by local officials. All staff, fire personnel, evacuees and pets were safely evacuated from Estes Park Center property. In typical YMCA fashion, our good friends at YMCA Camp Santa Maria generously stepped up and provided shelter for many of our seasonal staff who had been evacuated.
And in an effort to more fully support fire teams, Snow Mountain Ranch asked the few guests on property to evacuate, quickly turning the center into a full-blown fire camp as more fire resources continued to arrive.
The following days were some of the most difficult days we’ve faced as a YMCA team, but we knew that no matter what happened, our staff were safe and the Y, which is so much more than its buildings, would rebuild. We filled those long days with Zoom meetings, prayers and definitely lots of tears, but also with hope. We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of thoughts, prayers and stories that were shared with us by our friends from around the world. Those stories and notes from our family got us through our most challenging times and we cannot thank you enough.
In what can only be described as a miracle, the fire did not reach Estes Park Center and the snow that came that Sunday brought much-needed relief for the fire crews who’d been working tirelessly to protect the Y and our communities. Snow Mountain Ranch did not have to evacuate and was able to continue to host fire teams, evacuees and staff. Estes Park Center suffered quite a bit of property damage due to frozen pipes and boilers, but after a temporary closure is ready to welcome guests back to property.
YMCA of the Rockies can never fully express our gratitude for all that the fire crews have done to keep our communities safe, often in the worst conditions with little to no sleep. We will never forget their time in Estes Park and Grand County and we are honored to have been able to host them in safe, warm accommodations.
The fires challenged our team but they made us stronger, and more ready than ever to serve guests and tackle anything else that comes our way. The YMCA is strong, and this year has proven that time and time again.