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One year after Colorado's most destructive fire, the community still grapples with the aftermath

The Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1000 homes in Boulder County on December 30, 2021
Alexis Kenyon
The Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1000 homes in Boulder County on December 30, 2021

Late on the morning of December 30, 2021, Carole Billingham and her husband were in their Louisville home near Heritage Park, enjoying what Carole called 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 sky looked weird. It was orange. And our hawk, I say our hawk, we have a hawk that lives in the neighborhood, was sitting on the fence, very ominously. And the winds were really, really strong,” she said.

Carole says she could also smell smoke.

“I just knew something was wrong and my intuition told me to go downstairs and get packing tape and pack the opening to our patio door. And as I was doing it, I thought, this is strange, but I listen when my intuition tells me to do something,” said Billingham.

Mary Wolf operated counseling and bookkeeping businesses out of her home in Spanish hills, in East Boulder.

She was returning from a doctors’ appointment at around noon where she had just tested positive for COVID.

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 (Boulevard) and turned left onto South Boulder Road to head to my home and I realized that smoke was right behind my house,” she said.

The fire was close, but still on the opposite side of the highway.

“And I actually saw the flames across (Highway) 36 and I thought, ‘wow, that's a huge fire, but it's not gonna jump a six lane concrete fire break,’ you know the highway right there. But something told me (to) just get home and start packing,” said Wolf.

Immense smoke clouds filled the sky, and the flames were already burning through sparsely populated woodland, and in Marshall, an unincorporated area nestled in open space North West of Superior.

The fire was reaching more 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, and 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 and very scary,” she said.

“So we got to the bottom at South Boulder Road and it was a traffic jam, ‘cos you know, 20,000 people from Louisville and Superior were just trying to evacuate.”

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.

Carole Billingham, who’d seen the orange sky and the neighborhood hawk, went, with her husband, first to her son and daughter-in-law’s in Westminster, then to a hotel.

She drew on her training as a women's empowerment coach to encourage those around her to stay calm.

“After we found a hotel to stay in, I watched everybody panicking in the lobby, and I was very grounded and I would go up and touch people and just say, ‘you know, we're in this together, it's gonna be okay. We're alive, we're out of the house.’ I have no idea what's happening. At that point, I hadn't seen any news footage or anything. I just knew that there was a fire,” said Billingham.

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.

The housemate found the neighborhood entrance blocked off by police.

“And they wouldn't let her up our street. She had to hike up the hill to go find our house. And she said she didn't even recognize the neighborhood, you know. Usually we can see that's that house and that house. 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 stricken I think I've ever been in my life to realize everything you ever owned is just gone so quickly,” said Wolf.

All told, more than a thousand homes and seven commercial structures were lost to the Marshall Fire.

Disaster recovery specialists recognize 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.

“We do typically see, um, phases of community response. So we have in the field we kind of call community collective trauma,” she said.

Some people, she says, are more impacted than others.

Many experience anxiety, depression, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, and increased substance use.

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, in a surge of negative or low emotions because a lot of things will activate our memories about the event,” said Janish.

Once that first-year milestone passes there is often an emotional “steadying out,” though not always.

“I would say for our community as a whole right now, there's definitely a feeling of tension and sadness and even frustration and anger among people that I talk to,” she said.

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,” she said.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

John Kelin is a volunteer news producer at KGNU in Boulder.