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Zornio: For me and others, escaping the Marshall fire comes with a heavy dose of survivor’s guilt

The wildfire charred more than a thousand homes while sparing others, leaving many to wonder why they still have a house at all

The first text arrived at 12:08 p.m. “A fire near you?”

Looking out a south-facing window, the sky streaked blue.

The next came at 12:09 p.m. “Grass fire shut down 36 into Boulder.”

I ran outside to look west, braving the same 100-plus mph wind gusts that had felled my fence and trees just days prior. At first it was a small puff of clouds. Moments later, a giant plume of thick, dark smoke came rushing toward us from the open space a mile from my house.

Another text simply read, “Grab the cat and docs and go.”

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

I was stunned. This couldn’t really be happening. Not this fast. Not this far into the Front Range. Definitely not when it was almost January. Instinct took over my own disbelief.

I urgently began knocking on doors and telling neighbors to prepare to evacuate. Most were confused — what fire? The formal evacuation texts would arrive 10 minutes later.

“Pack and get out now!” I said. “Take Coalton east.”

At the same time I called my partner who lives a half mile down the street closer. He didn’t answer. I called again. Still no answer. I left a concise message and called more neighbors. 

Later we’d learn his house was in the middle of the burn zone, although he never received an official emergency evacuation alert.

As the 911 text came in, I was already packed and out the door. What unfolded next was far worse than any of us could have ever imagined. 

READ: Colorado Sun coverage of the Marshall fire

It’s hard to put into words the devastation this fire has caused our community. On the night of the fire, several elected officials expressed concerns via private messages that there simply wouldn’t be a town of Superior or Louisville by morning. We prepared to lose everything.

I began to think of all the mementos I would never see again; my late grandmother’s earrings, my father’s birth note from France, my childhood photographs. We had our lives, yes, but so much would still be lost. 

I called my dad, crying, while I evacuated for a second time — the fire had grown larger, threatening my first evacuation spot. This time we fled to Fort Collins, watching red-hot flames engulf home after home. It seemed like nothing could make it stop.

It would be a full 48 hours before we could confirm that we had not, in fact, lost our homes. 

The fire’s mosaic, finger-like pattern left some homes untouched while everything around them burned to the ground. Incredibly, the fire lines held for us both. Across the road, whole parks and neighborhoods were reduced to ash, nearly every inch of the ground between us blackened. It is a ghoulish scene we were not prepared for.

Survivor’s guilt is real. It applies in situations of devastating loss, including natural disasters. In talking with neighbors, this is the overwhelming sentiment. The idea of returning home without our friends feels eerie and unsettling, with a prevailing question of why them and not us — and when the next fire will be.

There is no good answer.

What I do know is that more than 1,000 structures have been reported to date as destroyed or damaged, yet these represent a mere fraction of the total impact to the community. I suspect there are hundreds to thousands more who, like us, have homes and property damaged by smoke, ash or freezing temperatures.

Still, the imbalance of losing everything versus losing some things makes it feel almost wrong to want to accept help or sympathy — others have simply lost so much more, and many of us do feel guilty for it. It’s hard to feel joy when there are reminders of sorrow in front of you.

Perhaps the hardest part is that, in retrospect, there’s no reason to be surprised. For years we’ve known the growing impact of climate change on natural disasters, wildfires in particular. The components are well documented: extended fire seasons, hurricane-force winds, extreme drought, increasing density. We’ve already seen these play out in multiple fires across the American West, and the conditions in Boulder County that day could not have been a more perfect storm — and we failed to adequately prepare. 

This reality has left me with only a few truths amid all the uncertainty.

First, we will only build back better and more resilient by coming together as a community. Coloradans help each other; it’s who we are. This is a message we’d all do well to remember.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Second, the spectrum of loss following a disaster is complicated. Some lose loved ones, others lose their home, their sense of safety or their belongings. We need to be a little bit kinder to each other, and understand that no one has it easy.

Third, and much to my dismay, this will happen again. Few places, if any, are truly safe anymore. I dare say we could easily see similar events all along the Front Range, even into Denver proper. Any efforts to rebuild here must acknowledge this shift and adjust with fire protections typically reserved for mountain communities. For example, this might include building codes that require fire retardant shingles and building exteriors to reduce the likelihood of ignition for blown embers. 

Climate change is here, there’s no escaping it. This devastating event should be a reminder to all Coloradans that we must act quickly to lessen the impact.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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