This might be my last Marshall fire-related post, at least for a while. The remnants of our house have been cleared away, and it seems like a natural opportunity to reflect. While painful, I hope that this step in the process can offer us some closure.
My other wildfire posts can be found here:
Saying Goodbye to the House
Part of me struggled with the idea of the lot being cleared because, although it was all ash, rusty metal, and shards of glass, much of it was still there, just in a different form. When the crews demolished the foundation and cleared it all away, our belongings truly disappeared. The property as it was had become a sad monument in my mind, marking the events of December 30, 2021. Now there is almost no evidence on the property of our home ever having existed.
On the other hand, I think it will be a relief to move forward without the wreckage occupying space in my mind. It felt strange to go about my daily life while a violent reminder of something terrible existed nearby. It was always draining a small amount of my attention.
I have to resist the muscle memory of taking that exit on the highway, and it still feels weird to call my current residence “home,” even six months later. When I close my eyes in the shower, the smell of my shampoo transports me to my old bathroom, with the sun streaming in through the frosted glass window. Sometimes, when I’m somewhere between asleep and awake, I feel disoriented; I can’t picture the room I’m in. Not home. Not here. Where am I?
I visited the house on some Thursdays on my way back from therapy. Sometimes, I got out and stood on the front step, looking down at the piles of ash. Sometimes, I just sat in the car. Every time I went, I wondered if it was the last chance I had to say goodbye to it.
On one such visit a while back, I saw some greenery sprouting out from the dry, brittle remnants of a rose bush. The above-ground vegetation was burned or singed, but the rose’s root system was still alive. It sent up brand-new stalks when spring beckoned.
Actually, two of our four roses survived the fire. Seeing as how they were running out of time before the crews arrived to clear and level the property, we bought two large plant pots and got to work digging the roses up.
It was arduous; when soil burns, it can become somewhat hydrophobic, so although it had snowed and melted before we started, the soil was still incredibly hard. We brought water with us, but pouring it on the ground was only effective at wetting the top 1/8th of an inch of soil. It simply ran off, leaving the packed dust underneath it untouched.
Once we got down to the lower layers, the water helped more, but we still could only make progress by chipping away clumps of hard dirt and clay with our newly purchased gardening tools.
After about 20 minutes of digging, I came across a pill bug scurrying on its tiny legs across the disturbed earth. It struck me that I hadn’t seen any invertebrates before then. In our eight hours of digging across two days, we saw three or four worms, a couple more pill bugs, and one ant. The soil was barren.
In some ways, digging up the roses was familiar. We’d planted, pruned, weeded, and watered that garden bed countless times over the years. The sun was out, birds were calling to one another, and I knelt on the walkway as I worked, just like I did before.
Parts of it felt familiar, and feeling around for roots and gradually excavating them was mesmerizing. We lost track of time.
And yet, in the background, I was always aware of the space the house no longer occupied. It sat off to my right and tugged on my attention. There were no insects or spiders in the dirt, no kids running down the block, and no noises in the air. Without lawnmowers, dogs barking, and sprinklers chugging nearby, the neighborhood was eerily quiet.
We wanted to get as much of the root systems as possible, but we had to start cutting them somewhere. We also had to get rid of the top three to six inches of soil because it was contaminated with toxic ash. It pained us to sever so many roots and expose the fragile sprouts to the sun, but we figured the roses had nothing to lose. They would be destroyed if we didn’t save them.
Unlike the roses, the trees were not saveable. There was an ash tree in our front yard that had new growth, but an arborist assessed it and delivered the sad news: it was too damaged to survive long term. The sap on the inside of a tree burns more effectively than the outer layers of wood. Essentially, trees can burn from the inside out. The outer layers of the trunk might have survived enough to grow new branches, but the tree’s ability to transport water was so reduced that it would not be able to sustain itself.
We arrived at the lot just as the crews were beginning to remove the trees. They started with the pine to the left of the driveway, then moved on to the ash tree in the front yard. They had cut it down at the base beforehand, so the backhoe operator got to work breaking the tree apart. We listened to the terrible sounds of dead wood being snapped under pressure, chunks of main branches flying into the air.
Slowly, the tree was reduced to where its main trunk split into three branches. The operator picked it up from the top to break it down again, and it dangled in the air for a moment. It was surreal – like I was watching a child use a toy backhoe to play with sticks on a playground. Except, it was such a familiar tree that seeing it lift off the ground and hang there did not sit right with me. The deconstruction of something so solid and unchanging was difficult to accept, even as I saw it happen.
When I was in middle school, I used to climb up to the best branch of that tree and read books, swinging my legs and listening to the rustle of the leaves in the breeze. I used to sit under it with my childhood dog, and later, with my current dog. I patted the bark and said goodbye to it when I went to college, and then I said hello when I moved back home.
This week, I stood on the other side of the street and watched my favorite tree get snapped into pieces by a backhoe and carted off in the back of a truck.
We left after that, trusting that the rest of the process would be even more disturbing to us. It’s necessary, and I’m relieved to finally be at this point, but it is distressing to see your already-obliterated home be torn apart even further.
Growth and Looking Ahead
Overall, I feel like I’m making progress, but I also feel like I’ve been changed by my experience, and no amount of moving on will restore the sense of safety I used to have.
I find myself organizing my important belongings so that they would be easy to grab in an emergency. I sometimes have nightmares in which something is on fire and I can’t find enough fire extinguishers to put it out or even hold it back.
There are some things I feel better traveling with than leaving at home because you never know what could happen while you’re away.
Some of my anxiety about fires feels useful to me, like it could help me respond more effectively in the future. At the same time, it seems to be in conflict with the sense of urgency I have about taking back control of my reactions to fire.
If the last few years have taught us anything, by late summer, Colorado will be so dry it will practically burst into flames of its own accord.
There will be more fires this year, and I don’t want to be thrown into a panic every time one crops up in the mountains or a few towns over. I don’t want it to impact my love of my home state or my desire to live here. I’d much rather adapt.