In early October, the ranch hands at the C Lazy U Guest Ranch in Granby were celebrating. They had just received word that their 8,500-acre property and upscale hotel was once again earning accolades for its luxurious accommodations, this time by Condé Nast Traveler, which named the 101-year-old dude ranch nestled three miles off of Highway 125 a top resort in the West.

Like many of us in Northern Colorado, the ranch’s staff had spent all summer complaining about the poor air quality while relishing the red-as-coals sunsets that burned the days into nights. The Williams Fork Fire had been blazing for weeks, but given that it was about 25 miles away, it was nothing but a nuisance. “In a way, it desensitized the community,” says Brady Johnson, C Lazy U’s director of sales and marketing. “We thought, ‘Oh, there’s this fire near us in Grand County, but it’s never going to work its way far enough north to threaten the ranch.’ We didn’t treat it as a threat.”

Indeed, the Williams Fork Fire wasn’t a danger. But everything changed on October 14, when a 40-acre brushfire dubbed the East Troublesome Fire started near Parshall, 13 miles west of the ranch. Within a day, the blaze had grown to 4,000 acres and roared four miles closer. Suddenly, the threat of fire that had seemed so remote was now very, very real. The staff at C Lazy U revved into action, moving roughly 50 guests off site and pulling out the evacuation plans they’d made years ago.

The following day, October 16, it was clear the ranch’s almost 200 horses and livestock would need to be removed—and fast. Because C Lazy U’s horses live on-site and don’t travel for shows or rodeos, the ranch doesn’t have trailers on hand to move their herd. So they turned to their community for help, using social media to spread the word. Despite the thick smoke, more than 20 trailers arrived to evacuate the horses—first to Granby and then, as the fire continued to spread, to Evergreen—some traveling from as far as Colorado Springs and Aspen.

The East Troublesome Fire engulfs Grand County. Photo courtesy of firefighter Brandon Donner

“There were trailers of all shapes and sizes,” remembers Lisa Piccardo, a Granby resident who is unaffiliated with C Lazy U, but who still showed up to help with the horse evacuation. “People with fancy horse trailers; people with rusty stock trailers; everybody just showed up. It was heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time.”

Over the next couple of days, the C Lazy U staff continued to prepare under their pre-evacuation orders, although with calm winds and the fire seemingly stagnant, the pace was much less harried. A crew of Adams County wildland firefighters was on site as well, helping mitigate the danger around the ranch and its members’ homes. Among them was Brandon Donner, who recalls how his team executed controlled burns to reduce the fire’s fuel supply and dug fire lines to expose dirt, thereby minimizing fire spread to the structures.

Beau Stark, who owns a member home on the C Lazy U property and had been living on the ranch with his family for the duration of the pandemic, said he began packing up the most valuable items to take back to their other house in Boulder, just in case. He cut back the grass and some trees, “trying to create as much defensible space as I could,” he says.

The morning of October 21 dawned windy and warm. The National Weather Service called for a red flag day, and the ranch got word that they would have to be fully evacuated by 5 p.m. The race began again, this time to get the most valuable items off property: saddles, tack, inventory, artwork, records, “all those things you don’t think about that cost a fortune,” Johnson says. Just as predicted, when 5 p.m. hit, a menacing red and orange could be seen over the ridge, just as the ranch’s general manager, David Craig, packed the last things into his truck and tore away.

C Lazy U Ranch horses
Some of C Lazy U’s 200 horses graze on the ranch’s sprawling property. Photo by Molly Johnson

The fire raged all that day, blazing strong enough to create its own weather and whip winds into 90-mile-per-hour gusts. Donner’s firefighting crew had taken a stand around a cabin deeper into the canyon along CO-125, beyond C Lazy U. Around them, the rapid winds knocked over live pines 12 to 14 inches in diameter. With their own lives in danger, the team’s commander ordered them to regroup in a safer location. Driving out of the canyon in the early afternoon, the smoke was so thick it felt like nighttime, Donner remembers.

Amazingly, the fire’s northeasterly course had spared most of the ranch that day. But as the winds continued to howl on October 22, the fire changed track. “It went at us from a whole different angle,” Johnson says, engulfing the entire property.

Donner’s crew returned to C Lazy U, doing what they could to beat back the fire when Donner happened to notice a small flame licking up from the ranch’s pool house. It was hard to tell whether the fire was just on the roof or if it had permeated deeper into the structure, but the team dumped 600 gallons of water onto the building, removing the threat and saturating the wooden shingles as a safeguard against other stray embers.

Many of the ranch’s other structures couldn’t be saved. In what Johnson calls a “heartbreaking” loss, the ranch’s iconic barn, built in 1922, was gone, along with a guest cabin, two employee housing structures, 700 tons of hay, and the covered hay storage structure. Eight of the 27 member homes were also lost, including Stark’s.

C Lazy U Ranch barn
The iconic C Lazy U barn, built in 1922, was lost in the East Troublesome fire in October 2020. Courtesy of C Lazy U Ranch

Despite the devastation, however, the love of the land so ingrained in the C Lazy U community has led to a spirit of perseverance. “The wide open vistas that were a part of what made the place special in terms of natural beauty will still be there,” Stark says, noting there was never a question of whether or not his family would rebuild their home. “I had a builder lined up when I saw the first puff of smoke.”

The ranch is currently in the midst of aggressive reconstruction. All of the buildings are undergoing repairs for smoke damage and the cabins will be repainted and refloored, with their linens and draperies replaced. Plans for a new barn are also in process. The team is assessing the land, making sure the paths are clear of unsteady trees and safe for guests. They’re also reworking fence perimeters for the horses, which returned to the ranch on November 6 and 7.

The rebuilding process looms large as the C Lazy U staff prepare for a full reopening by the end of March, but their commitment to the ranch and its future is unwavering. “This is just part of the ranch’s history,” says Don Bailey, one of the ranch’s co-owners. “Fifty years from now, we’ll look back at COVID-19 and the fire of 2020 and see them as just a blip. If you have that long-term perspective, then you’re always looking forward.”