Its shuttered shops and inns empty of tourists, its neighborhoods empty of residents and its streets empty of non-essential traffic, the village at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park still was full on Friday — full of dread, full of hope and, especially, full of hungry firefighters.
Estes Park, the Larimer County mountain town that over the past half century has bounced back from periodic disasters ranging from floods, fires and deluges to government shutdowns and pandemics, was mobilizing to feed, house and support hundreds of crew members sent in to fight the second-largest fire in Colorado history and keep it from entering the village.
The East Troublesome Fire, which started in Grand County, jumped the Continental Divide into Larimer County on Thursday and prompted mandatory-evacuation orders for much of Estes Park. But a 30-degree temperature drop within two hours late in the day caused the blaze to slow its advance toward the town. By Friday afternoon, however, evacuation orders had not been lifted, said fire incident commander Noel Livingston, because of a forecast for dry and windy conditions late Friday afternoon.
Access to the town remained prohibited for everyone in the mandatory evacuation zones, the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office said Friday afternoon. Residents who can prove they live in one of the voluntary evacuation zones are being let in, but only for short periods.
As town officials watched and waited, John Cullen, owner of the iconic Stanley Hotel, was engaged in what he called the “Great Egg Hunt.”
“These firefighters went through probably damn near 800 eggs this morning,” he said. “Giving them a protein breakfast is probably a good thing. No one ever prepared or taught me how to do this, so we are making stuff up by the hour.
“The tough part is actually the COVID compliance issues,” he said. “We’ve got to serve it in the proper to-go containment boxes. Sourcing 3,000 food-container boxes that can handle wet food is really a challenge.”
Not to mention the fact that the town’s largest grocery store, a Safeway in the Stanley Village shopping center just down the hill from the hotel, although presumably full of food, is shuttered tight, and Cullen by noon hadn’t been able to reach store officials.
It also doesn’t help that all roads into the town from the Front Range urban corridor are closed, but Cullen said he’s been able to draw some support from Denver-area contacts, and “the Stanley seems to be the magic word to get you through the (highways) 36 and 34 roadblocks. We basically are, absent the field offices, the house for this thing.
“We’re expecting 800 for dinner tonight — which probably means it’ll be 1,000. Every time they give me a number, it’s a different number. The good news is that it’s going up and not down, which means there are more resources coming into town.”
Donna Carlson, president of the Estes Chamber of Commerce, also was engaged in the food hunt — albeit from her family’s home in Colorado Springs after a harrowing 5½-hour journey from Estes Park on Thursday after the evacuation order was given — including three hours just to get from Estes to Lyons on U.S. 36, which was jammed with evacuees.
“Being in Estes right at 2:30 at the peak of the evacuation, it was dark as night. The streetlights were on. You could see this ring of fire around the town; we weren’t surrounded by fire, but it was the reflection. It was really eerie,” Carlson said.
“I’m running command central from here, trying to coordinate food for firefighters and the (emergency operations center) there,” she said. “We have a small group of town officials on the ground in Estes, trying to manage things there. I’ve also been rallying our sister chambers down in Loveland and Longmont to help us feed all these folks.”
The Stanley’s role as housing for firefighters began Thursday, just after Cullen got word that the state had conditionally approved a pandemic-related one-year extension to a state grant that supports a film center at the hotel.
“Little did I know that just an hour or two later, the entire town — let alone the hotel — was at risk. By noon, the fire marshal is calling me and asking, ‘Can I have 100 rooms?’ And then it was 200. And then it was 300.”
By evening, Cullen was at capacity and had to plead for 120 extra beds. “Murphy’s Resort and Rocky Mountain Inn came to the rescue.”
The crowded conditions meant a change in sleeping arrangements for Cullen and some of his workers.
“We did have our employees move out who are in house, and sleep in the spa on massage tables,” Cullen said. “I’m not going to make a firefighter sleep on a couch when we’re in a comfy bed.”
Carlson said no structural damage has been reported so far in the town, but she — like other town officials, fire crews and displaced residents, are watching the fire and the weather.
Meanwhile, the Stanley will be full again tonight — full of firefighters as well as the hotel’s legendary ghosts.
“I think the ghosts are actually firefighters themselves,” Cullen said. “It’s the only way this hotel has survived for 100 years.”
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