overlays: {bottom: true}

Saturday 22 January 2022

Marshall Fire

Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions and photos of the fire and the damage caused.

I've been pretty quiet here on the blog so far this year. 

In the lead up to the new year I had every intention to start 2022 out strong on the blogging front and play catch up on some posts I've been meaning to share for a very long time. I'm not one to set new year's resolutions or goals, but a new year does always feel like a good time to start afresh, and I'd decided I was going to bite the bullet and just get it done. 

And then 2021 decided to throw us one last blow... 

On December 30th 2021 our little city was hit by one of the worst fires in Colorado's history. Fueled by 110 mile an hour winds, what started out as a small grass fire on nearby farmland quickly spread to the neighboring town of Superior and then here to Louisville. Within hours entire housing subdivisions were gone. Entire neighborhoods wiped out. Tens of thousands of people hit the congested roads to evacuate, grabbing what ever they could in the little time they had to prepare. If you've been following along on Instagram you'll likely know that we were among those who evacuated. We grabbed our pets, important documents, back up drives and favorite toys and joined the traffic heading north and east, not knowing if we'd have a home to return to.

We're among the lucky ones. The wind changed direction before the fire reached our neighborhood. Our home is still standing. A little smoky at first, but completely undamaged. Unfortunately, around one thousand families in our community can not say the same. Their homes are gone. So too are their most cherished belongings, and unfortunately in many cases, their beloved pets. The fire moved so quickly that there was little time to grab anything before evacuating. Many families were away on vacation at the time with no one able to access their homes and save their pets. It's heartbreaking. As well as those who lost everything, there are many more families in our community whose homes have been rendered uninhabitable due to to smoke and ash damage (whether visible or not). 

I'm sure you've seen it all on the news, but today I'm going to share my story from experiencing the fire first hand. Our home was spared and for the most part we had the comfort of watching the fire from afar (through our Nest camera and Twitter) but I did find myself in the thick of it at one point and it was the scariest thing I have ever experienced. It is the only time I have honestly feared for my life.

Around 11:45am on December 30th I was getting ready to go pick up a birthday present for Kim in Boulder when suddenly the lighting in our house turned eerily orange. Kim figured it was probably just a big cloud in from of the sun, but it wasn't a cloud. It was thick smoke. At first we thought it must be a housefire nearby because the smoke was so thick, but with fire trucks zooming past we weren't too concerned. They'd have it out in no time before it could spread. I hopped in the car and headed to Boulder, just 15 minutes away. Along the way I could see that the smoke was actually coming from a fire much further away in a field and felt relieved that it wasn't coming from someone's home. I texted Kim a pic of the fire to show him how far away it was and I figured that would be the end of it. It was just a grass fire in a field and we were only seeing so much smoke because it was incredibly windy. We had known to expect incredibly strong winds that day. There were warnings about 100 mile an hour winds for that day, followed by warnings about heavy snow the following day. We'd laughed about how Colorado weather can never make up its mind. Sunny and warm one day, windy the next, and then snowing the day after. As I made my way to Boulder that day my only concerns were that the strong winds might push my minivan off the freeway or that the giant cottonwood tree in our backyard would drop large branches on our neighbor's roof. Both pretty worrying, but I was not concerned at all about the fire. 

Marshall Fire 12/30/21
Smoke from the Marshall Fire as seen from our home in Louisville 11:50am 12/30/21
Marshall Fire 12/30/21
The Marshall Fire as seen from McCaslin Ave, Louisville 12pm 12/30/21

After running errands in Boulder, and trying my best not to get blown away as I walked to and from the car, I hopped back on the freeway to head home. What should have been a 15 minute drive became almost an hour of sitting in bumper to bumper traffic that was at a standstill for the most part. By now I could see that the fire was much larger than it had been earlier, but it still appeared to be burning in fields as far as I could tell. And it was just burning in fields, however it was rapidly approaching the town of Superior.

Smoke from the Marshall Fire as seen from Best Buy in Boulder 12:30pm 12/30/21
Marshall Fire from the 36 in Boulder 1:10pm 12/30/21
Marshall Fire from South Boulder Road outside of Louisville 1:20pm 12/30/21

Superior is one town over from us, but like many suburban areas in the US there's no gap between Superior and Louisville. It's not like back home in Australia where there's a lot of countryside between towns/cities. They run into each other and share many facilities. For example, Ava's high school is shared between Louisville and Superior. Superior Marketplace is where we do most of our shopping, where the girls swim with their swim team, where we go to the dentist, and so much more. We're there pretty much every second day. There's a Wholefoods, a Super Target and a Costco among many other stores. You've probably seen the footage of Costco being evacuated as the fire raged behind it. As I finally made my way back to Louisville I remembered that I was running low on fuel and, not realizing the extent of the fire, I turned off South Boulder Road on to McCaslin Boulevard to head towards Costco to fill up my tank. No sooner had I turned did I realize what a mistake this was. I had not been able to see as I crested the hill before turning, but the fire clearly lay directly ahead of where I was now attempting to drive. Unfortunately, there was nowhere to safely turn around. The traffic was pretty heavy and the smoke was even heavier. As I slowly made my way down McCaslin Blvd, past houses that no longer exist, the smoke got thicker and thicker. Before I knew it there were flames along the edge of the sidewalk. There were firefighters right outside my car working to put out the flames, but the strong wind continued to fan them, spreading the fire further. It was at this point that I realized just how bad the fire actually was. It was no longer in a distant field, but right here in our little city. Right around this time my phone started beeping with messages from Kim that Superior was under mandatory evacuation orders. 

McCaslin Avenue, Louisville 1:30pm 12/30/21
McCaslin Avenue, Louisville 1:30pm 12/30/21
McCaslin Avenue, Louisville 1:30pm 12/30/21
McCaslin Avenue, Louisville 1:30pm 12/30/21
McCaslin Avenue, Louisville 1:30pm 12/30/21
McCaslin Avenue, Louisville 1:30pm 12/30/21

And then everything went black.

Strong wind had blown the thickest, darkest smoke and ash all around me. I sat in my car, stopped at traffic lights, unable to see anything outside my car apart from black clouds and the dim green glow of the traffic light. Ash started to pour in through the vents in my car and I fumbled to turn off my air conditioning as I coughed uncontrollably. I knew I needed to get out of there but I couldn't see what lay ahead of me. Were there other cars in front of me? A fire truck had just gone by - was it in front of me in the smoke? Was the fire right in front of me? Where were those brave firefighters who had been standing just outside my car? I couldn't see anything and I started to panic. I honestly thought I may die right there in my car. And then another strong gust of wind blew the black smoke away and the sky went back to brown. I could see again and the road ahead of me was clear. I was able to drive ahead and turn down a side street on the left to head away from the fire and back towards home. I don't know how long I sat there in the black smoke. It was likely only 30 seconds, but it felt like minutes.       

After winding through back streets I made my way home, shaking like crazy and in disbelief of what I had just experienced. With the wind being so strong officials had not been able to use any planes or helicopters to assess the fire from above, so there was very little information about just what was going on. We knew that Superior had been evacuated, and knowing first hand just how close the flames were coming we decided to get everything ready in case we needed to evacuate as well. The kids gathered up favorite toys while I got our pets ready and grabbed my camera equipment, back up drives and important documents. When the evacuation notice for Louisville came through we were mostly ready to hit the road, but to be honest I was in such a daze from the whole experience that I just looked around the house not knowing what else to take. I looked at our Christmas tree full of ornaments we've collected on our travels, original artworks on our walls created by artist friends, drawings by the kids dotted around the house... I wanted to take it all, but I knew we had to leave. I just had to hope that it would still be here later. We evacuated at 2:30pm.

Smoke from the Marshall Fire and evacuating traffic as seen from our house in Louisville 2:15pm  

Our house is just a few doors down from South Boulder Road which served as a major evacuation route for many people in Louisville. We could see that traffic heading east was pretty much at a standstill, so we made our way to the other end of our street to pop out a little further along. It was at this point that I remembered the almost empty gas tank. Not what you need while trying to evacuate a fire zone. It took us forty five minutes to get out onto South Boulder Road from our neighborhood, and we spent much of that time with the car turned off to save the little fuel that remained. A freight train came along blocking South Boulder Road for what felt like an eternity. Another thing we didn't need while evacuating. Eventually we made it out and managed to head east and north and rolled into a gas station a little further away with just a few miles left on the gauge.

Smoky sky as we evacuate Louisville
Lola watches the fire as we evacuate

To be honest, we had absolutely no idea what to do or where to go. I don't think anyone did. There was an awful lot of confusion and given the incredibly windy conditions there was little information to go by. We headed north to Longmont and grabbed a late lunch of burgers while we tried to work out where to go. I religiously checked our doorbell camera for the status of the fire. For the most part it just showed thick smoke, but every now and then the glow of the flames would appear and I'd panic as the fire drew closer to our home. 

When the evacuation orders first came through for Louisville, the map shared showed that the entire city was under mandatory evacuation. A little while later, we learned from our neighbors (who had been heading home from the mountains to get their pets at the time) that our particular neighborhood actually fell in the "prepare to evacuate" area. The border between the two evacuation zones was South Boulder Road, which as I mentioned earlier, is just three houses away from us. Because of this, several of our neighbors chose not to evacuate right away (although they had everything packed up ready to go) and they relayed information to us throughout the afternoon and evening. Between updates from the neighbors, constantly checking the evacuation maps on the Boulder Office of Emergency Management webpage, and our doorbell camera, we made the decision to head home around 9pm. At this time the fire was still burning, but as the strong winds had died down dramatically after changing direction, we felt safe returning home. Well, safe to an extent. We kept everything packed up in the car ready to go in an instant should we need to, and just brought our pets back inside where the hedgehog and the gecko both went back under their heat lamps (which I had forgotten to pack when we evacuated). Our house smelled strongly of smoke and we could see the glow of the fire through the smoke from our windows. Over the course of an hour of two the glow was no longer visible and I felt a little more secure, but I did not sleep a wink that night. 

The following morning the wind was gone. The smoke no longer filled the air, but its strong smell lingered - and still does in some areas to this day. A light dusting of snow started to fall, and at first I mistook it for ash. I took a quick drive in the morning to check on a friend's house (which luckily had survived the fire but is still too smoke damaged for them to move back in) and found myself on McCaslin Boulevard, the same road where less than 24 hours earlier I had been stuck in the thick smoke as grass fires burned along side homes. Those same homes were now reduced to rubble and ash, still smoldering as light snow fell from above. Entire neighborhoods wiped out in just a few short hours. Police cars and national guard humvees blocked the side roads as heartbroken locals looked on at what remained of their homes, their friends' homes and their community. As the day went by the snow fell heavier blanketing everything in white and putting out what remained of the fire. If only the snow had fallen a day earlier. 

I've driven down McCaslin pretty much every day since the fire and every time I still feel that same shock when I reach the burned areas. My heart starts to race and my still sore chest tightens as I remember the smoke. I'm overwhelmed with sadness for those who lost their homes. With any natural disaster that we see on the news, there's always much sadness that you feel for those affected, but it feels remote. When the natural disaster is in your own community that feeling of remoteness is gone. The sadness grows so much stronger when you're seeing it firsthand. In the coming days we learned of so many friends and acquaintances whose homes were destroyed or damaged. From our little elementary school alone some forty families lost their homes. Three or four kids from both Mathilde and Lola's classes lost everything. Mathilde's best friend lost her home. Her kindergarten teacher's home miraculously still stands, a solitary house in a sea of ash. It is uninhabitable, of course. Several of Ava's friends lost their homes. Kids who have been here for sleepovers and parties. Countless more of her classmates are in the same situation.     

A week after the fire I went for a walk around Harper Lake and Davidson Mesa and took some photos of the damage. Most houses here are wooden, so only the concrete basement foundations and brick chimneys remain for the most part. Burned out cars sit in driveways, and metal outdoor furniture, play equipment and trampoline frames dot the yards; a reminder that these were not just houses but homes where children played and families made memories. Metal mailboxes and chain link fences stand in place, the only things marking where one house ends and another begins. Blackened trees line the streets. Steam rises in various places as the still warm burned earth melts the snow above. The occasional spared house stands alone among the ash and debris. One thing that really stood out to me was the Christmas lights that survived in many places. A little touch of color in a bleak landscape and a reminder that what should have been a magical time of year turned into a nightmare for so many families. I haven't seen it myself, but I've been told by friends that some of those Christmas lights still shine at night. A little beacon of hope, perhaps?

As the snow has melted over the past few weeks it has brought to light just how erratically the fire spread. All over Louisville and Superior there are areas where the buildings stand seemingly undamaged but the grass and gardens are charred. The grass around our local recreation center (where President Biden recently gave his address) and police station is burned. A small garden bed in our Safeway supermarket parking lot is black. The grass and garden beds outside my physical therapist are burned. Large patches of lawn outside Ava's school also burned. These are all minor, and the grass will recover, but there are so many of these spots dotted around town and they show just how erratic the spread of the fire was. 

Along with many homes, there were businesses that were also destroyed. A small shopping complex, home to a new chicken shop that had just opened that week and that I'd been keen check out, was destroyed. A hotel in Superior was burned to the ground. Our local Target mostly survived but has a gaping hole in the roof. The original miners' cottages that make up the Superior Historical Museum are gone. Superior's Town Hall sustained damage along with many of the stores that make up Superior Market Place. You can see the full scale of the damage on an interactive map by clicking here

Since the fire my head has been filled with "what ifs" and "if onlys". What if the fire hadn't hit during Winter break? What if the kids had been at school? The fire came so close to both of our schools (it reached the grass outside Ava's school and came within blocks of Lola and Mathilde's). How would the schools have evacuated? There is just one road in and out of Ava's school. What if I didn't make it home before the evacuation was ordered? What if my dentist appointment hadn't been cancelled and I'd been sitting in the dentist chair with drilled out teeth (I need a couple of crowns) when it was time to evacuate? What if the wind hadn't changed direction before reaching our neighborhood? If only the fire hadn't move so quickly. If only there had been more time for people to grab their precious belongings before evacuating. If only the snow came a day earlier. If only the fire hadn't started in the first place. We still don't know what started the fire. At first it was believed to have been caused by powerlines downed by the strong winds, but this was found not to be the case. The fire appears to have started on a property owned by a cult, and we know that authorities  were called to this particular property regarding another fire just days earlier, but it is unknown if there is a connection. The latest reports share a theory about an underground coal fire in a disused coal mine located on or near this same property. For now, this is just speculation and we don't know what started it for sure.

Throughout this whole disaster one thing that has been very uplifting is seeing how our community has come together. Right away online message boards were filled with offers of accommodation for those who could not return home. Local businesses provided free meals, bottled water (our water was not safe to drink for over a week), clothing and cash for those who needed help. Volunteer run donation sites popped up overnight at schools and businesses. Our elementary school has been able to provide clothing, household goods, toys, school supplies, gift cards, meals and so much more to local families. Many large clothing brands (especially those making Winter gear) have opened free stores where fire victims can "shop" new items at no charge. Any request for volunteers is filled right away by locals wanting to do their part. Volunteers are providing home cooked meals for those staying long term in hotels, delivering goods, sorting through donations, and providing support in so many different ways. Our gymnastics and dance studio opened up for free childcare for anyone who needed it. Our library and recreation center became hubs for those in need of some space to work. Uplifting signs thanking firefighters and first responders are dotted along fences, on schools and in yards. 

Like the phoenix, I know that our little city will rise up, stronger than ever, from the ashes. It's going to take a lot of time and a lot of hard work, but seeing how our community has come together and rallied around those in need of help over the past few weeks has been incredibly heartwarming. This fire has impacted our entire community whether we lost our homes or not. It has brought much sadness and a lot of pain, but it has also brought us together. 

If you're read this far, thanks for sticking with it. I know this was a very long post. If you'd like to make a donation to help those affected by the Marshall Fire please go to https://www.commfound.org/wildfirefund. Thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...