BOULDER – Louisville Police Chief David Hayes wore shiny leather hiking boots and a gray pullover sweater as he faced the microphones, calmly explaining to a room crowded with reporters and television cameras that residents could soon pick up passes to reach neighborhoods scorched by the Marshall fire.
What he did not announce during Monday’s news conference, or any of the other news conferences since a wind-swept inferno obliterated more than 900 homes in Boulder County, was that his Louisville police uniform had burned up.
So did his house.
Hayes, who has been the Boulder County town’s police chief for eight years and has a law enforcement career stretching back to 1977, would rather focus on protecting Louisville and helping the city recover than dealing with his own tragedy.
He’s had the time – and the emotional stamina – to look at the pile of ash that was his house only once, standing in the dark Thursday night as a few flames still lashed and ash floated in the air.
“What used to be a house was mostly collapsed into what was our basement,” the chief said in an interview with a handful of reporters that his staff said would be the only time he speaks of his personal loss. “The car that I had in the driveway was, uh, melted.”
It’s easier, Hayes said, to pour all his efforts into his job and avoid dealing with his house. He called the insurance company and reported the loss to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and that’s all he’ll do for now, unless he’s forced to visit the ashes with the insurance adjuster, he said. “Frankly, I really haven’t had the urge to go back to the house. I was there just a few minutes that night,” Hayes said. “At this point, I’m not sure I want to go back. It’s part of those emotions.”
Hayes, 65, was in his office last Thursday doing “regular” chief work – planning and scheduling – when an employee came in to let him know there were two fires under watch within the county, including one near Louisville. He launched into activating the reverse-911 notification system and discussing plans for an alternate police headquarters should the fire advance from toward the station.
Soon enough, flames were outside his office window.
As officers sat in the station briefing room, Hayes watched as the landscaping caught fire. Bushes were igniting in front of his eyes.
The chief evacuated the police station and moved operations to the parking lot of the King Soopers store a few miles away on South Boulder Road, where the mayor and city manager joined a planning meeting next to a rendezvous of multiple police vehicles. Hayes was there coordinating evacuation efforts and traffic plans until about 9:30 p.m.
By then, some of Hayes’ officers had figured out that the chief’s neighborhood was mostly destroyed by the fire that seemingly flew in the wind across parched open space west of Superior and into Louisville. But Hayes hadn’t had much time to think about it. He lives alone, with no pets, in the house he’s had for 32 years and where he raised two daughters.
The chief turned to his good friend, Louisville Deputy Police Chief Jeff Fisher, and told him he figured it was time to go check on his house.
“He pulled me aside and said, ‘I think I need to go with you. I don’t think it’s there anymore,’” Hayes recalled.
The neighborhood north of the police station looked like a war zone. His neighbors’ homes were mostly gone, too. He felt an empty, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Later, when neighbors called and texted Hayes to ask whether he knew if their houses were OK, telling them they were gone felt like he was delivering a death notification, he said.
Hayes, who announced three months ago that he would run for Boulder County sheriff to replace term-limited Joe Pelle, said he intends to rebuild on his same plot. “This might sound crazy, but I want the same exact house back,” he said. “I want the same rooms where they are. The furnishings, of course, will be different.”
Now a grandfather, Hayes said he wants to rebuild the house as a place where his daughters can always come home, and where his grandchild can grow up, too. For the next few weeks, though, Hayes said he will focus on Louisville as it begins to recover from a disaster that has displaced hundreds of families and, at least physically, fractured a community.
“My kids are grown and out of the house, so it was really me to take care of, but more importantly, it was the community to take care of,” he said, noting that another police department employee and a sheriff’s office commander also lost their homes in the fire. “At some point, I’ll get to me.”
“I would like to think that I was needed in Louisville. We will get through this.”