Colorado Residents Scramble to Safely Cast Votes Amid Wildfire Evacuations

The state of Colorado has been hit with an unprecedented wildfire season this year, including the weeks leading up to the November 3 election, leaving residents scrambling to ensure their vote is cast safely, properly and on time.

Since August, Colorado has seen its two largest wildfires to date—the Cameron Peak Fire and East Troublesome Fire—which have collectively burnt through more than 400,000 acres.

The East Troublesome Fire, which began on October 14 just north of Hot Sulphur Springs, moved rapidly through Grand County and into the Rocky Mountain National Park. It was 37 percent contained as of Saturday morning, but has remained stable this week after the area received nearly a foot of snow on October 25 and 26, The Denver Post reported.

Peter Rempel, a Grand County resident, remembered watching the clouds in the two weeks leading up to the evacuation notice. On October 21, as he drove the 30 miles from work to his home in Grand Lake, Rempel could sense something had shifted in the air.

He pulled into his driveway at about 7:30 p.m. and received a text message from the county, alerting him of the pre-evacuation notice. Rempel figured he had some time to gather his belongings before heading out, but only 15 minutes had passed before the second text came, this time advising him to leave immediately.

"I started putting stuff in the car, I ran down in the basement to grab one more thing, and when I came out, then the fire department was here, or police or somebody—just flashing lights, that's all I remember," Rempel told Newsweek.

He had every intention of taking his ballot with him, but "that got left on the dining room table," Rempel said.

The wildfire had begun exactly one week prior. While the official cause is still under investigation, authorities preliminarily believe it was caused by a person or people, according to The Colorado Sun.

But the bulk of the destruction happened quickly, between October 21 and 23, hence the hasty evacuation texts from the county. The wildfire grew at an epic 6,000 acres per hour on the night of October 21, racing across Grand County and taking officials by surprise. Grand County Sheriff Brett Schroetlin called the fire the "worst of the worst."

"The fire got ahead of us, there is no doubt about it," he said during a briefing on October 22. "We can't control Mother Nature."

Lynnea Godfriaux, another Grand Lake resident, had evacuated with her husband five days prior to when Rempel and other residents received the order. They had observed the weather conditions, sensing what was coming their way. But as Godfriaux watched a virtual town hall meeting on October 21, she was surprised to see that her home wasn't yet in the fire's path. The couple decided to return to grab a few items they had initially left behind.

"We were driving toward [U.S. Route] 34 from Tabernash. We came over the crest of the hill and were met with a wall of flames. It was that fast," Godfriaux told Newsweek. "We still hadn't received our pre-evac or evacuation notice...And we will never forget those images."

Godfriaux described Grand County as an enthusiastic community passionate about responsible citizenry. People's intent to vote in this election is as high or higher than ever before, she said.

"The only ones that I am concerned about are the ones where the emergency came in between them and their vote," she said.

East Troublesome Fire
This is an overview image of the East Troublesome Wildfire just north of Granby, Colorado. Photo processed and enhanced by maps4media via Getty Images

Pam Anderson, a former clerk and recorder for Jefferson County, has managed an election during a wildfire before. She currently serves as executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association, a non-profit professional group that assists and advocates for the state's 64 county clerks.

"One of the things we're very proud of here in Colorado is the options that we've built in for voters in dealing with any sort of contingency or disaster," Anderson told Newsweek. "Certainly in an emergency, it may not be the first thing they're thinking about, but...our county clerks are ready and waiting for them when they need."

Anderson couldn't think of any specific situation where a voter has not been able to access their ballot if they needed it. A lower than expected voter turnout because of the wildfires won't be a significant issue this year, as long as voters are aware of the options available to them, she said.

Colorado began sending every eligible voter in the state a ballot by mail in 2013. Anywhere from 95 to 97 percent of voters typically choose to use their mail ballot, Anderson said. The state does have in-person polling centers, but those are often used by voters who have a specific issue they need to resolve.

The state has a vote center model, meaning that any voter who has been displaced within their county can go to a vote center to replace their ballot or vote in person up until close of polls on Election Day, which is 7 p.m., Anderson said.

For anyone in Colorado who has been displaced outside of their county, it is now too late for them to receive a new ballot by mail. But the state has emergency voting, where the voter's county clerk can transmit their ballot electronically, Anderson said.

In Jackson County, located northwest of Grand County, the East Troublesome Fire prevented mail collection for several days. Two voters there requested replacement ballots through the emergency electronic method, Jackson County Clerk and Recorder Hayle Johnson told Newsweek.

For voters who already received their mail ballot and remembered to take it with them as they evacuated, they can place the ballot in any drop box throughout the state. The county clerk will make sure that the county of their residence will receive that ballot in time to be counted, Anderson said.

Godfriaux, who had taken her mail ballot with her as she evacuated to Denver, said she knew about this last option. But a lot of people, including herself, didn't feel comfortable using it with such little time remaining until the November 3 election date. The U.S. postal system encountered a backlog in late summer, prompting worries that mail delays could interfere with the election.

Instead, Godfriaux and her husband decided to drive with their ballots from Denver all the way to Hot Sulphur Springs, the Grand County seat, once the pre-evacuation notice there was lifted.

"We drove up from Denver with our ballots and drove to Hot Sulphur and dropped off our ballots. And it was the most wonderful is part of the healing process for us," she said.

Even if the mail system was "running perfectly," voters shouldn't depend on mailing their ballots in, Godfriaux said. She urged Coloradans to instead drop them off in person, because it's now safe to do so.

After evacuating to Grand Junction and realizing he had left his ballot behind, Rempel investigated what his options would be if the worst case scenario came true and he lost his home to the fire. But six days later, on October 27, Rempel was able to return to Grand Lake, where he discovered that both his home and his ballot were OK.

Like Godfriaux, Rempel filled out his ballot and drove it to Hot Sulphur, placing it in a drop box. "If my house had been destroyed, I probably wouldn't want to be here right now. But I would have come back to vote," he said.