On the morning of December 30th, 2021, my mother and I walked through the neighborhoods across the boulevard, pausing to watch the geese on Harper Lake.
We marveled at the waves, agreeing that we’d never seen such wind in our community. In the shelter of the neighborhoods, we picked up empty milk jugs and cardboard boxes – recycling day in the wind. Entire, filled bins careened through the streets in the windier spots, strewing their contents across yards and mailboxes.
We thought that would be the worst of it.
Around noon, a cloud of smoke came billowing over Louisville and Superior. Unsure of what to make of it, we drove the short distance to a better vantage point, just outside our neighborhood. From there, it was clear that it was far, far larger than we had thought.
We were barely able to stand in the wind. Fearing that it might change and send the smoke our way, we headed home and checked the news. An unofficial tweet about a life-threatening situation nearby was what prompted us to start packing. But still, we didn’t really believe that it would grow to be so destructive. Just a couple minutes later, I could see flames in the distance. Our neighborhood sits directly next to a big, beautiful mesa with miles of tall, dry grasses just waiting to ignite.
I have sometimes wondered what I would do if a grass fire erupted while I walked on those trails. A lit cigarette, a lightning strike, a downed power line. On a windy day, a fire would rip through the landscape in seconds, sending burning tumbleweeds straight down the cul-de-sac and into the center of our little circular neighborhood.
That must be exactly what happened that day. We ran through the house, grabbing our wallets, laptops, and not much else. I unplugged the Christmas tree as I hurried by it, not thinking even then that the disaster would progress so far. We were in a bizarre state of disbelief – it was both urgent and somehow so precautionary that I was concerned about having something to do wherever we ended up waiting for it all to calm down. Despite the adrenaline, despite the flames in the distance, somewhere in my mind, I still expected to be home later.
We threw a few things in the trunk, I put the dog in the car, and we pulled out of the garage. The power was still on at that point, but it wouldn’t be for long, leaving panicked people unable to remember how to open their garages manually.
The roads were already packed with evacuees from the neighboring city and ours. It took us an hour and a half to drive across town, but only 20 minutes after we left our home, those parched grasses on the mesa were already spent fuel for the fire raging on the edge of our neighborhood.
Over 1,000 homes were destroyed in parts of Boulder County on December 30th, 2021. There wasn’t much the fire crews could do for the structures, the jets of water from their hoses turning back on them in the 100-mile-an-hour wind. No planes or helicopters could drop fire suppressants. Costco was surrounded by fire, families fled from the Chuck E Cheese in a dystopian haze, and a horse ran through town, its image captured in a smoky, surreal photo.
By the time the lumber yard of Home Depot caught fire, the fire hydrants were losing pressure as the city’s water began leaking out of hundreds of burned homes.
At a family member’s house in Denver, we watched the news. Still in the dark about the fate of our house, we scanned the footage to see if our neighborhood was on fire. We watched the reporter point to the homes surrounding Harper Lake as they fell apart in the inferno, the geese long gone on the wind. All the trash we picked up that morning now seems a tragic lesson in futility.
There’s nothing left of our house across the boulevard from Harper Lake. Just two brick pillars where the front door used to be.
I am overcome with grief at the thought of our home burning, everything exactly where we left it.
My coat, which I forgot, by the door. The dog bed in the alcove, the Christmas tree, the pictures on the walls. The fabric I’d laid out on the table to begin a sewing project, and our gingerbread cookies on the glass plate in the kitchen.
I can see our house in my mind as a snapshot in time – and then I see it all burning. As if I were standing in my house while in a bubble, watching it consume each and every flammable particle, I watch my sketchbooks and paintings disintegrate into fine ash.
I see the sweater my mother knit for me for my 16th birthday blow away as smoke, and the boxes of family photos in the basement go up in flames. The dishes shatter, the books burn, and in the deafening roar of the entire flaming city, the support beam in the basement twists in the heat and falls. Not even the frame is standing, having been reduced to ash in the rubble of what used to be our home.
I think of all the homes this way, their own family heirlooms and well-loved belongings going up in smoke all over Louisville and Superior. Every house held irreplaceable treasures.
My heart hurts for the loss my family has suffered and for the entire community. All the things we’ll never get back. All the work that lies ahead.
I marvel at the timing of our own personal disaster. We saw flames and decided to leave at 1:10 PM. By approximately 1:30, the flames had reached our neighborhood. I absolutely shudder in my skin to imagine what could have happened if we had been at the store or out to lunch, or anywhere not home. Like many pets in the area, Stella would have been trapped. Her orange ball still sits in the yard – charred – but recognizable.
The way the fire blew through open areas at high speed was terrifying. Authorities estimate that in some places, it was moving the length of a football field in a matter of a few seconds.
If we had been out, there’s no way we could have made it through the traffic in time, and it makes me sick to think about. What if one person had the car and the other was stranded at home? What if we had been asleep?
It was some consolation for a day or so to believe that no one had lost their life in the fire, but that was soon updated. Two people remain missing and are presumed dead, and the unidentified remains of a third person have been found inside a burned structure. The loss of human life is the worst outcome possible during a disaster, and I know that all of us, especially those impacted by the fire, feel that loss keenly. We escaped with our lives. At least one person didn’t. The family and friends of that individual have a horror to live through unlike anything I experienced. I hope they have support and that eventually, the pain of the way in which they lost their loved one subsides, and they can remember them with peace.
The Meaning of Things
I find myself checking on my few belongings to make sure they’re where they should be. Nearly everything I own from before the fire is in my backpack, including the thumb drive with photos that I grabbed from my shelves and a worry stone that happened to be in my purse. I get a stab of anxiety when I think I might have misplaced something.
There are some things that have survived by being gifted or lent to others. A signed book my mother lent to a friend is now the only book she owns from before the fire. Pieces of artwork I’ve given as gifts are tucked away safely in others’ houses.
Other things were saved because we were wearing them, we grabbed them in our rush to leave, or we discovered them in our purses or the car once the house was already gone.
The thought of starting over with nothing familiar is difficult to swallow. All the little choices you make throughout the years to accumulate what you have are suddenly void. The belongings you get immediately following the disaster are welcomed, but different – different forks, different pillows, different gloves, different everything. There is so much change, it can’t possibly hit you all at the same time. Knowing that our house is gone, and as an entity, that place will never exist again, is gut wrenching. It’s a blow to my mental health that I’m not quite sure how to handle.
This house is not the only place I’ve lived, but it is the only place I’ve lost in this way. My family bought the house almost 2 decades ago, and I’ve been living there ever since, except for two years in high school and the fall/winter semesters of college between 2014 and 2018.
Setting aside the items inside the house, the sense of loss when a home is destroyed is different from the sadness of moving away. In both cases, you no longer live there, but in one, the house is obliterated. Wasted. There will be no more triumphs and tragedies within its walls- yours or anyone else’s. Almost as if a house were a living thing, it’s difficult to accept that it no longer exists.
We attach meaning to things because we’re human. We make symbols out of them, let them represent feelings, events, people, and memories. We collect little trinkets, ticket stubs, and tangible evidence of our successes.
Everything inside a house is stuff. It’s also more than stuff because we make it more. We see a history unfolding in our lives that should be documented, and the physical pieces of that often feel the most real. A baby’s dress, a letter you saved, a single earring you can’t let go of- they’re all little slices of your past.
Losing all of that at once is overwhelming, sometimes beyond my own capacity to feel it. You do, however, immediately begin accumulating new stuff with which to make symbols. A fleece blanket the Pet Pantry gave me for Stella at the Disaster Assistance Center, the clothing so generously donated by friends, family, and strangers alike, and the thoughtful gifts of art supplies I’ve received are all things that I appreciate much more than I would have before the Marshall Fire.
At the same time, I’m grieving for my neighbors’ homes, the businesses in Louisville and Superior, and the city itself, which has been forever altered by the Marshall Fire. I don’t own the homes that I walk my dog by every day, but I feel like I’ve lost them, too. The homes I used to play in with kids my age, the gardens I admire in the summers – the pure familiarity that comes with a hometown is gone.
I’ve spoken to some neighbors about the Marshall Fire briefly, and each time was comforting. We are all dealing with the same sadness and uncertainty, and while I wish my neighbors weren’t experiencing this with me, having that sense of community can be a push to rally for a shared purpose.
Some will rebuild, and some will move away. We’ll always share this history, though, and I hope we’ll stay connected. We’ve seen so much compassion and generosity in the last few days that I feel as though my understanding of human nature has been brightened. We humans are complicated, resilient, emotional stuff-collectors. The community will adapt to this disaster and come out the other side eventually. We might even be helped along by the sweetest therapy alpaca ever.
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