Four months after a Christmas-week wildfire ravaged their neighborhoods, destroying more than 1,000 homes near Boulder, Colorado, survivors are navigating post-traumatic stress disorder, dizzying bureaucracy and the prospect of a new normal for wildfire season.
The Marshall Fire, Colorado’s most destructive fire on record in terms of property loss, tore apart close-knit suburban communities in Louisville and Superior, as well as rural stretches of unincorporated Boulder County, on Dec. 30, 2021. A local fire official warned that wildfire season is now “year-round,” after a subsequent fire in Boulder in March—the NCAR Fire, named for the National Center for Atmospheric Research overlooking where the fire burned—scorched 190 acres and forced the evacuation of 8,000 homes.
Climate change is making U.S. wildfire season longer, increasing the average size of the fires and driving them to burn more intensely, research compiled by the Environmental Protection Agency shows. The fires also are burning more frequently in landscapes where they were once rare. Most of the dozen families of Marshall Fire survivors interviewed for this story said they didn’t consider their homes to be at risk from wildfires at any time of the year, let alone in December, given their distance from forests.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that Louisville would be impacted by wildfire,” said Leslie Mathis, a finance coordinator who lost her home there. “It caught everybody by surprise.”
Here are some of the survivors’ stories:
Janet Rodina, 71, had her senior years all planned out. She had a two-year-old home in Superior’s Old Town, close to her children and granddaughter, that she could age in. She filled it out with a greenhouse, tender young rose bushes and a camper van to explore National Parks. “I intended to live here for the rest of my life,” she said, “but it all went to ashes in a few hours.” She was settling into her home during an intense year in which she had brain surgery, got treated for breast cancer and initiated a divorce. “I was making new friendships, and it just got pulled out from under me.”
Leslie and Dani Mathis
“I’ve felt very stripped of everything,” said Dani Mathis, 30, who lived in her childhood home with her mother, Leslie Mathis, 62. Dani said she feels she has lost her connection with her father, Steven, who died in the home in his sleep in 2010. The only memento she has of him is one ring, which she was wearing at the time of the fire. His ashes were lost in the rubble, along with three cats, Chloe, Zoe and Rue, who died in the fire. Leslie said the tragedy has made her more aware of global warming: Disasters associated with climate change, she said, are “going to be our new norm.”
Sarah Sierra and Matias Adrian Olivas
As a single mom of three in 1994, Sarah Sierra labored for 250 hours to build her house in Superior, hammering and painting alongside friends and volunteers from Habitat for Humanity. Owning a home “was my golden dream,” said Sierra, now 75 and retired from working for the Boulder Valley School District. At the time of the fire, Sierra lived there with her grandson Matias Adrian Olivas, 18 (pictured) and her son Adrian. “I almost died the day of the fire,” she said, but she ran to the car with her dog and escaped. She said she lost many things that can’t be replaced, including a colorful wool blanket that her father made from a sheep they raised at her childhood home in Zacatecas, Mexico.
“Our living room was in flames when we left,” said Jerolyn Ochs, 57, a telecommunications analyst who lived in Louisville. Among the things she won’t be able to replace: paintings by her late mother and all of the photos of her deceased stepson. She and her husband Steve had paid their home off through years of hard work, she said, but it will take an extra $300,000 beyond what insurance will pay to rebuild the house as it was before it burned. “I’ve been working since I was 16,” she said. “Now it’s like, are we ever going to be able to retire?”
Reina Pomeroy, 37, had lived in her house for just 20 weeks before it burned to the ground. “This was supposed to be our forever home,” said Pomeroy, who moved in the summer of 2021 to Louisville from California with her husband David and their 8- and 2-year-old sons. They’ve spent at least 50 hours on the phone with their insurance company, figuring out their coverage. Though the policy was less than 6 months old, it won’t be enough to pay to rebuild the house as it was before, she said. The couple will have to start rebuilding without being guaranteed that they can get a policy extension to cover additional costs. Moving to Colorado during the Covid pandemic meant that Pomeroy hardly knew anyone when she lost her house, she said. After the fire, she co-founded a group called Marshall Together, through which neighbors share recovery advice and resources. “It’s been a gift to be able to connect with people,” she said. “It’s the weirdest silver lining from this experience.”
Chad, Isla and Shannon Cox Baker
“Is our house going to catch on fire?” Isla, 9, started asking her parents at an early age, when she saw or heard about wildfires. “Never. Unequivocally no,” Shannon Cox Baker and her husband, Chad, both 44, would tell her about their home, which was perched on a ridge on scenic Panorama Drive in unincorporated Boulder County. Now natural disasters “are making us question what is the future of living on the Front Range” in Colorado, said Chad, a biologist. “It’s this constant feeling of foreboding,” said Shannon, a real estate developer. “How hot is it going to be? How smoky? … It’s depressing, it’s unnerving.” As she oversees new affordable housing projects in Colorado, Arizona and Utah, she said, “There’s a constant thought in my mind: Should we be living here? Should we be growing? It’s an existential challenge.”
Bonnie Smith, 92, and her late husband, Dean, built their house in 1968 in a rural stretch of unincorporated Boulder County, so they could have a horse. Smith, who raised three children there, lost pieces of history in the fire: 450 rare books, her mother’s quilt, and all the photos of her wedding. The hardest part of losing her home, she said, is “when you can’t find anything that says you’re married.” Though rebuilding will take time, her son, David Smith, plans to set up a hot tub and an RV at the property this summer so she can spend time at the place she loves.
Stephen and Elizabeth Van Leir
Stephen Van Leir, 53, pictured with his wife Elizabeth, 36, loved to collect and rebuild cars. In the wreckage outside their house, he planted an American flag on a scorched Jeep chassis, next to a hollowed-out 1970 AMC Javelin. Van Leir, a construction manager, said the hardest part of losing his home is feeling like he can’t provide for their four children, ages 9 to 14. They’re renting an apartment, he said, but it feels like they’re on a long road trip, aching to be home. The cost of reconstructing their 1,400-square-foot house may be double what insurance will pay, he said, but “our goal is to rebuild.”
“You spend your entire life working to achieve this place in society where you have stuff, and then … it’s vaporized off the earth,” said Mike Macinko, 54. The fire destroyed both the home he was living in, in Superior, and a house he owned in unincorporated Boulder County (pictured), which he was fixing up to rent out. Losing everything has “been the greatest exercise of mental fortitude of my entire life,” he said. “I think it’s because you have to force yourself to make things matter again.” Macinko said he feels changed: “I realized I can get by with a lot less stuff. It’s made me more unattached to things. … I am going all-out, doing everything I can today to make the most of my life. I don’t think I was like that before the fire.”
Sheryl and Evan Buchman
Sheryl Buchman and her three kids moved into Superior’s Sagamore neighborhood nine years ago, shortly after her divorce. “This was our fresh-start house. We could breathe here,” said Sheryl, pictured with her 16-year-old son, Evan. As the fire drew near, she stayed to rescue a neighbor with disabilities who was sleeping in the basement as the house was in flames. Now Sheryl is in treatment for PTSD. Anything that reminds her of that day—including strong winds—makes her cry, she said. “It’s really, really hard.” Sheryl, a physician assistant, said she used to be Type A, but the fire changed her: “I am so much more laid back,” she said. “I go with the flow so easily now. It doesn’t matter what you do, something can abruptly change your life.”
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