Losing Everything In Twelve Hours; Marshall Fire Survivors Share Their Stories

December 30, 2022 is the first anniversary of The Marshall Fire and Wind Event, a natural disaster that resulted in catastrophic loss for thousands of people in Boulder County. The fire and its aftermath are still taking a toll on the community.

Now, one year later, some of those who lived through that terrible day agreed to share their stories with KGNU

Carole Billingham and her husband spent that day at home, enjoying what they thought of as a “staycation.”  Only recently married, they were savoring a quiet morning together as they wrote in their journals.

“I came upstairs and I saw that, you know, the, the sky looked weird,” Carole recalls. “It was orange. And, and our hawk – I say our hawk, we have a hawk that lives in the neighborhood – was sitting on the fence, very ominously. Um, and the winds were really, really, uh, strong.” She could also smell smoke. “I just knew something was wrong.”

About a mile away, in the Harper Lake area, Rachel Cole, a writer and podcaster, was relaxing at home with her family. “It was actually my husband’s birthday,” she said, “and we were all sitting around the table playing cards, Um, after having lunch. And all of a sudden it looked like the sun had gone behind a cloud and it got kind of dark and we’re just like, Hmm, you know, whatever. It happens. Then about 30 seconds later, it happened again and we’re like, well, that’s strange.”

Around noon, Stephanie Smythe, a psychotherapist, was driving back to Louisville after a hike. “As I was heading back towards town down 120th, it started getting smoky and I thought, Hmm, I wonder what’s going on?”The closer she got to Louisville, the worse it looked. “There’s all this smoke. I could see the smoke. By the time I got to the post office in Louisville, I couldn’t see much more than a block.”

Photo by John Kelin, Hours before Marshall Fire burnt through his neighborhood and minutes before calls to evacuate, photo out of bedroom window. December 30, 2021

 

Mary Wolf operated counseling and bookkeeping businesses out of her home in Spanish hills, in East Boulder. She was returning from a doctor’s appointment at around noon when she saw something that made her pull over to the side of the road. “There was this big huge plume of smoke. And I actually stopped and took a picture of it and was like, wow, that’s really an anomaly. And then I started heading further up McCaslin and turned left onto South Boulder Road to head to my home, and I realized that smoke was right behind my house.”

The fire was close, but still on the opposite side of the highway.“I actually saw the flames across 36, and I thought, wow, that’s a huge fire, but it’s not going to jump a six lanes concrete fire break, you know, the highway right there. But something told me just get home and start packing.”

The flames were already burning through sparsely populated woodland and in Marshall, an unincorporated area nestled in open space North West of Superior. Cindy Mayhew ran a massage therapy practice out of her Louisville home. She had seen the smoke as she drove home from the airport, where she dropped her daughter, but at first had been overly concerned.“I was working in my basement, um, giving a massage, and came upstairs to a smoke-filled house. At that point, I just felt like, well, yeah, this is a little smokier than some of the other times. We’ve had smokey days around us from other wildfires.”

Emergency, “reverse 911” robocalls alerted thousands of people to the danger, but many people did not get one, including Rachel Cole, the writer, and podcaster

“And at that point we said, well, should we evacuate? We don’t know. And then I got a text from a good friend who lives near Fireside school down that end. And she said to me in the text, the firefighter just knocked on our door and told us to get out. Are you out? And I was like, thank you.”

The fire had, in fact, jumped Highway 36, and was reaching densely populated areas. Mary Wolfe got to her home in Spanish Hills and called her housemate, who came straight home. “We both started packing our cars, and 45 minutes later, the smoke had just consumed the house, and we couldn’t even see driving out. The only way I could see down the road, one road out of the neighborhood, was to look at the grass on the road because the smoke was just so heavy.

“We both started packing our cars, and 45 minutes later, the smoke had just consumed the house, and we couldn’t even see driving out. The only way I could see down the road, one road out of the neighborhood, was to look at the grass on the road because the smoke was just so heavy.”

Traffic was bumper-to-bumper as thousands from Louisville and Superior fled. In this chaotic period, most found help wherever they could. Some went to an evacuation center set up at a YMCA in Lafayette, while others went to the homes of family or friends outside of harm’s way.

Rachel Cole and her family first found refuge in a friend’s unused condominium, where they searched their phones for information. “I guess a couple of hours later, we realized we can’t go back home. What are we going to do?” Another friend offered use of their home in Lakewood.

Carole Billingham and her husband went first to her son and daughter-in-law’s in Westminster, then to a hotel. “I watched everybody panicking in the lobby, and I was very grounded and, and I would go up and touch people and just say, you know, we’re in this together, it’s gonna be okay … At that point, I hadn’t seen any news footage or, or anything. I just knew that there was a fire.”

Photo Credit: John Kelin, December 30, 2021. Intersection 287 waiting for the light to change. John Kelin and his wife drove aimlessly for a while before finding an evac center at the YMCA in Lafayette.

That’s about all anyone who had to evacuate did know. In the midst of these terrifying and confusing events, Rachel Cole was moved by unexpected kindness. “The mom of that [Lakewood] house called her neighbor and explained what happened, and the neighbor came over and just said, what do you need? And we’re like, we don’t have anything. So she brought us toothbrushes and washcloths and, and then they ordered pizza for us and they brought it over. And I remember just hugging this woman at the front door of my friend’s house, complete stranger, and just thinking to myself, I, I cannot believe the benevolence and the goodwill of people in the world.”

When Cindy Mayhew evacuated, she went first to a friend’s in Boulder. After a few hours she drove toward the home of another friend in Westminster. On the way she detoured to her Louisville neighborhood, wondering how close she could get to he

home.

“And it turns out I could go all the way … I actually went into the, our Condo Wildflower Association and saw that ours were not there … It just was sort of just, I can’t believe it’s gone.”

“And it turns out I could go all the way … I actually went into the, our Condo Wildflower Association and saw that ours were not there … It just was sort of just, I can’t believe it’s gone.”

The morning after the fire, Mary Wolf’s housemate drove to their Spanish Hills neighborhood while Mary stayed behind at the hotel they’d found. “And she said it was like a war zone. And at 8:30 that next morning, she sent me a video of our house just burnt down to the ground, and it was still smoldering.  And I dropped to the floor, just sobbing. It’s the most grief-struck I think I’ve ever been in my life to realize everything you ever owned is just gone so quickly.”

All told, more than a thousand homes and seven commercial structures were lost to the Marshall Fire. In the immediate aftermath, many had a sense of disbelief that something so destructive could come, seemingly, out of nowhere. “A word I used a lot during covid was ‘unfathomable,’” Carole Billingham said. “And I found myself using that word a lot, both while the fires were happening and afterward, like how could a fire in December jump Highway 36? And destroy so much, so fast?”

Disaster recovery specialists recognize the stages any community goes through in response to events like earthquakes, hurricanes, or wildfires. Elyse Janish is one of the Team Leads for the Colorado Spirit Team of Mental Health Partners, trained in psychological first aid, and crisis counseling.

“A word I used a lot during covid was ‘unfathomable,’” Carole Billingham said. “And I found myself using that word a lot, both while the fires were happening and afterwards, like how could a fire in December jump Highway 36? And destroy so much, so fast?”

“We do typically see, phases of community response.,” said Elyse Janish one of the Team Leads for the Colorado Spirit Team of Mental Health Partners. “We have, in, in the field, [what] we kind of call community collective trauma.”

Many people experience anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, and increased substance use, Janish says. More serious responses include suicidal thoughts. Anniversaries, especially the first one, can be emotional triggers. “There’s often, right before an anniversary or one year mark, a surge of negative or low emotions because a lot of things will activate our memories about the event.”

“ I don’t feel like I’ve been doing very well,” Cindy Mayhew said. She lost her home, livelihood, and cat to the Marshall Fire. “I still cry every day… it’s a different grief than if you lose someone and you have closure with a funeral or whatever.”

Mary Wolf, who had relocated to North Boulder, was emotionally triggered nearly a year later by the  Sunshine Canyon Wild Land Fire. “Oh my God. The terror just took over, and the fight or flight mechanism kicked in, and I just started packing because my home was right in the line of the fire.” Fortunately, that fire was contained before it got out of hand.

“Any traumatic event changes us fundamentally,” Elyse Janish said. “It changes how we understand the world, and it changes our understanding of our place in it. So we’re going to continue to have reactions over time.”

“I really spent a lot of time being very quiet, which is not my normal personality,” Cindy Mayhew said. “Not wanting to go out, and I couldn’t be around people or noise…I think I did shut down, you know, and … I just pretty much ignored people.”

“I think it’s important that we all work it through,” said Stephani Smythe, a psychotherapist by training. “Because whether we lost anything, whether it was close to your home or whether you quote, lost everything, we,  as a community, are all irretrievably altered. It’s, it’s a communal trauma… None of us will ever be without that experience.”

For many, what matters most is coming to terms with the Marshall Fire and its profound impact on the community.

“One person said to me soon after it happened when you are ready, I would be honored to hear your story and help you carry your grief,” Rachel Cole said. “And that was so powerful for me to hear because it made me realize that the weight of grief is lessened by sharing it in the same regard that happiness is multiplied by sharing it.”

Photo Credit John Kelin: A photo of the Kelin’s neighorhood after the Marshall Fire

Anniversaries are an important influenced on how people react to big events, and the first anniversary is often the most significant. Stephani Smythe has often seen this in her patients. “Folks would be having a hard time and they wouldn’t even realize it was an anniversary until we sorted it through, and [then] they’re like, oh yeah. Right.”

Since losing her home in Spanish Hills, Mary Wolf has relocated to North Boulder. But after nearly twenty-five years in the city, she says the time has come to leave. “Every day I come across something that I lost, that I miss. And so, you know, that just doesn’t go away, whether it’s the anniversary or not.”

Rachel Cole isn’t sure how she will mark the fire’s first anniversary, but will have her entire family together. “Because it’s my husband’s birthday, I’m gonna take his lead to see what he wants to do … we didn’t get to have the birthday cake that I made last year cuz we had to run. So I’m gonna make that again then.”

Cindy Mayhew lives in a new home outside of Louisville now, but is reacquainting herself with the city. “It has shifted, you know, the energy has shifted. It’s not as sorrowful and sad and stagnant [as it was] right at the beginning, and there’s. There’s life happening.”

Stephani Smythe is venturing back to hiking areas she loved, before the fire. “Just a couple weeks ago I realized, oh, Marshall Mesa is open again. I went out there and took a hike up there and that was interesting going, oh, I see where the fire moved through, could see the tracks of the burned trees. The grassland had already regrown … so it was a real interesting juxtaposition. So one of the healing things, or the helpful things for me has been reclaiming my place within the land and the spaces and saying, okay, I can understand how it is.”