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Julia Crawley, 18, and her sister, Jaden, temporarily at a hotel in Boulder, escaped the Sagamore neighborhood hit by wildfire in Superior. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Menacing winds that fanned flames from the Marshall fire into Jaden Crawley’s Superior home last week were back to wake her up Tuesday morning. For a few paralyzing moments, the 15-year-old peered out the window beside the bed, watching as a nearby street lamp cast an orange glow through tree branches. As the tree blew in the wind, chopping up the light, the orange hue started to resemble flames.

Half asleep, Jaden panicked. 

“Is this another fire? It’s windy.”

She got up and soon realized she was safe.

Jaden and her sister, Julia, 18, narrowly escaped the Marshall fire’s march through Boulder County last Thursday, racing out of their Sagamore subdivision home with little more than their dogs and the pajamas they had on. Now, less than a week after the state’s most destructive fire, their peers are turning around and preparing to beat the bell to class and reopen their textbooks Wednesday. Some, like Jaden and Julia, lost most of their belongings, including school supplies and class notes. And some are figuring out where they’ll sleep, whether in shelters, hotels or other temporary settings. They’ve already lived through nearly two years of grief and trauma, including an ongoing pandemic and a mass shooting at a Boulder King Soopers last March that left 10 dead.

Now they must also figure out how to stay on track in school, while wondering when they’ll have a permanent home again and replacements for their lost possessions — down to socks.

Their ordeal is an example of the outsize impact that large-scale disasters can have on young people, who may feel left to suffer as families tend to immediate needs like food and shelter while mapping out their next steps.  

The plight of children whose lives were upended by the Marshall fire led to a two-day effort by students to push the Boulder Valley School District to postpone the return from winter break. Schools reopened Wednesday morning as scheduled, however, despite a petition that garnered more than 5,200 signatures. 

In an emailed note to families at schools affected by the fire, BVSD Superintendent Rob Anderson said the school system, whose buildings weren’t damaged in the fire, couldn’t afford to close at such a critical time.

“We are opening schools on Wednesday because schools are the center of our community and we need to be there to support those who need it,” he wrote, adding that teachers would carefully gauge their students’ needs before diving back into schoolwork.

School can help resurrect a sense of normalcy after disruptions like that of the Marshall fire, said Angela Narayan, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Denver.

Kids thrive on structure, so restoring routines can help them cope, Narayan said. Children and young people also need adults who care for themselves, and who seek help if necessary.

“Even if the adversity or the trauma is really severe, having a really stable, secure, loving bond with at least one adult can help kids be really resilient,” Narayan said.

Smoke from the Marshall fire rises above homes in the Rock Creek neighborhood,looking north on McCaslin Boulevard, beyond Coalton Road, toward Andrew Drive in Superior, Colorado, on Dec. 30, 2021. The Marshall fire ripped through the north part of town and then moved on to Louisville. As of Jan. 1, 2022, the fire had consumed 6,200 acres and destroyed 991 structures. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to The Colorado Sun)

And while school helps kids persevere through trauma, few deny there will be challenges as students return to classes amid worries about their homes, belongings, pets, neighbors and friends — often while sleep-deprived.

“All that takes a toll cognitively as well as emotionally,” Narayan said.

Yet students who signed the petition say they deserved more time to recover from the fire before returning to classrooms.

“It will not only be impossible for the students who have lost literally everything to learn but also for those of us who have witnessed this unfold,” Kai Nelson, a freshman at Monarch High School, wrote on the petition.

“I feel that we need time to process all of this and to support our friends and families,” Nelson, 15, added. “These families need time to figure out car pools, clothes, school supplies, and so much more.”

Nelson and his friend Emma Hecht, who both live in Lafayette and whose homes remain intact, organized the online petition while concerned for their friends and peers who have only just begun piecing their lives back together. Some kids they know don’t have working internet or warm water. And some are facing even harsher realities.

Hecht, a sophomore at Centaurus High School in Lafayette whose home narrowly escaped the fire’s path, started to grasp the gravity of its destruction through a text thread with friends who live in Louisville.

“Every single person was slowly realizing on the news that their entire neighborhood had burned down,” Hecht, 15, said, noting that friend by friend texted her relaying the loss of their homes.

She understands BVSD leaders’ push to get kids back in classrooms to restore one part of their routine, but she still urges the district to allow additional time for students to prioritize recovering from the inferno.

“As much as going back to school might be a sense of normalcy, if they’re expecting us to jump right back in, I don’t think it’s going to go over very well,” Hecht said, adding, “this needs to be about a sense of healing and not about school.”

Emma Hecht, 15, helped start a petition to delay the start of the spring semester at Boulder County high schools after the Marshall Fire destroyed surrounding neighborhoods. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

In his note to families addressing concerns about the return of classes, Anderson sought to ease fears about plunging students back into their classwork. 

“Those who have been directly impacted should not be worrying about attendance or grades at this time,” he wrote.

More than 600 students don’t have permanent housing in the wake of the fire and 42 district employees lost their homes, district spokesman Randy Barber said. 

Impact on Education, a foundation that supports BVSD, has been delivering backpacks, Chromebooks, headphones and other supplies to schools for kids affected by the fire. School administrators, counselors and a district coordinator who helps homeless students have been reaching out to students whose homes burned down or were significantly damaged and those who evacuated and have yet to return home, the letter noted.

“While we have heard from many families and students that are eager to reconnect with friends and teachers, as well as looking forward to the stability of school, we recognize that others are facing significant challenges, from logistical hurdles to trauma, that will keep them from coming back on day one and perhaps some time after that,” Anderson wrote.

Kai Nelson, 15, helped start a petition to delay the start of the spring semester at Boulder County schools after the Marshall fire destroyed surrounding neighborhoods. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Students behind the petition offered up other suggestions for the district to ease students’ transition back to school, including asking for teachers to scale back workloads, recommending school start a half hour later and urging bus routes to accommodate students who have been displaced.

They simply want the district to put their wellbeing and mental health above all else.

“It’s painful,” Nelson said, “to think that all of your friends are just going through such a hard time.”

“You could just see the red glow of flames”

Julia, a senior at Monarch High School in Louisville, has struggled to cope after fleeing the home she’s lived in for 17 years and losing so many of the possessions that anchored her childhood. The feather collection she inherited from her late grandfather is burned to ashes. So is the necklace her grandmother got at age 16 and gifted to her granddaughter on her 16th birthday.

“That’s all gone,” Julia said.

“Everything that we had that made up our home, we don’t have anymore,” her sister, Jaden, a sophomore at Centaurus High School, said. “So when we do move into a rental, we won’t have any of the memories.”

Julia has also struggled to sleep the past few days, but even when she can sleep, it doesn’t offer her much of an escape. She’s haunted by a recurring nightmare that takes her immediately back inside her house, where she and her sister are trapped as flames jump from a neighbor’s house to theirs.

The vivid dream pulls her back into one of the most traumatic days of her life. 

The day started out a good one. Julia, still in her pajamas, prepared quesadillas for lunch in the kitchen as her younger sister got ready to leave for the afternoon with her boyfriend. Upstairs, Jaden began to smell something burning and wondered if Julia’s cooking was to blame. Before she ran down to the kitchen, she noticed how gray it was outside her bedroom window and thought another dust storm might be rolling in.

After Julia received a text from a friend alerting her about a fire headed in their direction, the sisters looked out their front door and were alarmed at how smoky it was.

They called their mother, who was away in Wisconsin and instructed Jaden to race over to a neighbor’s house and ask if they should evacuate. When one neighbor didn’t answer, she popped over to another, barely able to hear or see anything because of deafening winds and ash that clouded her vision and coated her mouth.

She sprinted back to her home after her neighbor agreed to call the police for more information.

“All of a sudden Jaden is barreling like up the stairs toward me and she’s screaming and I look outside the window and I can see my neighbor’s house on fire,” said Julia, who had been scurrying around trying to collect birth certificates, health insurance cards and family heirlooms.

A vehicle burned by Marshall fire along Andrew Circle on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Superior, Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Jaden grabbed her arm, insisting they leave. They headed toward their mother’s black Subaru in the garage, where Jaden had already placed their two black pugs, Olive and Lela, and a lab they were dogsitting.

“We didn’t know if we were going to be pulling out into fire, so we were planning on going as fast as possible,” Julia said.

Instead, they backed out into “pitch black” as firefighters began spraying their neighbor’s home, one Jaden had knocked on just minutes before.

“By the time we got fully out of our neighborhood,” Jaden said, “our house was probably already on fire.”

Their evacuation was slow and dark. Julia could barely see more than 5 feet in front of her, with only the flames lapping up homes around them to light the way.

“You could just see the red glow of flames,” Julia said, as car horns honked and honked to try to prevent collisions.

They sheltered at their aunt’s house in Denver as their mother caught the first flight back.

Jaden clung to hope that her family’s house would still be standing, thinking about the fire hydrant outside her home and the firefighters who battled the inferno. But the next morning, they saw the remnants of their house on the news and their worst fears were confirmed.

For the first couple of nights after the devastating fire, Jaden grappled with guilt, wishing she would have grabbed more, like her stuffed animals. She’s let those thoughts go.

“If we were 2 minutes behind,” she said, “we would have been in our home with our house on fire.”

The sisters, who moved from their aunt’s house to a friend’s home in north Boulder, have realized how close they were to dying in the fire and how much each minute in their escape mattered. On Tuesday afternoon, they started to reunite with some of their neighbors, with whom they are close, at a hotel in south Boulder. They were happy to be able to hug one another, and Julia was relieved to hear a girl she’s babysat laugh.

“That made me feel so grateful, even though our physical things are gone,” she said. “We still have our people.”

They’ve gradually begun to gather essentials they’ll need to reconstruct the rest of their lives — “fuzzy” socks, winter boots, some donated clothes and a sifter they’ll use to comb through the ash that was once their home in search of anything that survived the fire. They’re looking into moving into a rental home next week and hope to rebuild in Superior.

Entire neighborhoods were destroyed from the Marshall fire, including the Sagamore subdivision in Superior. Little was left unharmed Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (Provided to The Colorado Sun)

The sisters aren’t quite ready to return to school and likely won’t be for at least another week. Julia is now too afraid to drive again after steering through the dark while coughing on smoke uncontrollably. Meanwhile, everywhere Jaden looks, she’s reminded of how much she lost.

On Friday morning, as she ate a banana, she was suddenly struck by a wave of sadness.

“I remember eating bananas in our kitchen,” Jaden said.

The sisters also catch cruel glimpses of normalcy, when they can forget about their life-and-death situation, if only for a moment, as they goof around and annoy their mother. 

They haven’t been able to return to their neighborhood yet, as it remains blocked off, but their family plans to head back in the future with neighbors and dig through the debris to try to find something – anything – that reminds them of their home.

“We’re hoping for that one thing that was like, that is ours and it’s still here,” Jaden said.