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Art exhibit takes pressure off locals who are tired of answering questions about East Troublesome Fire

People in Grand Lake are still dealing with the trauma of the East Troublesome Fire, which burned in 2020. A gallery of art and artifacts aims to educate visitors.

GRAND LAKE, Colo. — In a town of around 500 people, the locals have a plea for the tourists.

"The reality is that we are not OK. We will be, but this is still really new. This is still really raw," said Emily Hagen, the director of the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce. "We’re still in that healing process, and we will be for quite some time."

Grand Lake welcomes all visitors but asks that they pack something that doesn’t fit in a suitcase: compassion. 

Eight months after the East Troublesome Fire left scars on the hillside and places much deeper, tourism is more important than ever in Grand County. Still, locals need empathy to make it through the difficult recovery. 

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Credit: 9NEWS
Troublesome Stories exhibit

The evening of Oct. 21, 2020, is still difficult to talk about. Every visitor brings life back to town. Some questions also bring trauma.

"They say, 'Oh, we heard about the fire. Where can we go see burned-out houses?' Our response is don’t. Don’t go seeking people’s homes. It’s hurtful," said Hagen. 

Hagen's house survived, yet she knows about so many that didn’t. As more visitors come to town, their curiosity is sometimes hurtful. 

"I got really tired of answering questions about the fire because it really does weigh on you quickly," Hagen said. "I’ve had friends who say people lined up and took pictures of them cleaning up their properties and they felt very exposed and very angry. This is a place, if they want to see the human loss, this is where they can come."

The solution is a gallery full of art and artifacts from the East Troublesome Fire. 

The Troublesome Stories gallery opened this week. In a room filled with charred memories and painful moments, locals find refuge from the questions and visitors find answers.

"I want people to see this is what fire does," said Tom Cooper, a photojournalist and owner of Lightbox Images. "This is how it impacts a community. This is how it impacts wildlife."

Credit: 9NEWS
Troublesome Stories exhibit

Without Cooper, we might not fully understand the power of the fire. He has extensive fire training and is certified to be with firefighters while they're battling the flames -- places most journalists can't go. 

He took 9,000 pictures the day the flames spread 100,000 acres in Grand County. He documented the pain and recovery in the days after. Now the images give locals a place to point tourists when they just can’t talk about the trauma anymore.

"I look back at a lot of these pictures that I shot and some of them I don’t even remember taking. It’s just a whirlwind of snapping and documenting and trying to stay safe," said Cooper. "You’re documenting somebody’s home burning and their livelihood going up in flames. Their pictures, their memories, and things like this. It’s hard to digest."

The gallery also focuses on education, helping people understand how destructive a wildfire can be if people disobey fire bans.

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"I hope these pictures are a powerful reminder of what fires do and what is happening to our forests right now," said Cooper. "Out of all the fires I’ve shot, I’ve never seen trees just flattened and broken off like that."

The folks in Grand Lake say they’re seeing more visitors since the pandemic than they’ve ever seen. Fourth of July this weekend could bring in thousands of people to the small town.

As the town moves forward from the fire and a year of coming to terms with the loss, they're ready for more visitors, and now, all their questions.

"Our visitors are a huge part of our recovery here. We want them here. We want to celebrate Grand Lake with them. We’re just asking that they’re also easy on us because we’re still raw," said Hagen. "This will always leave a mark on Grand Lake. In our nature and in our people, but this doesn’t define Grand Lake."

The gallery runs through October 31 and is located at 315 Pitkin St. in Grand Lake. Entry is free. If you would like to look at the pictures of buy prints, you can click here.

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