The first sparks of the Marshall fire started about a mile and a half from where I live. My older sister and I live in South Boulder. Molly lives in an assisted living facility and I live in an apartment half a mile from her.
The night before, I’d made a plan to visit my youngest sister in Denver. Strong, gusty winds of 40-50 mph were predicted, and we joked that as long as I stayed away from 18-wheeler trucks, my low-profile Honda Civic would be fine.
But I had no idea how the combination of wind and fire would turn that drive – one I’ve done countless times – into an extraordinary ordeal that, amid the sheer terror of the fast-moving flames, also revealed the best instincts of those caught in the path.
Initially, I was buffeted by strong gusts on U.S. 36, but felt happy to be on my way. I was a mile from the Superior exit when I noticed a gray plume on a grassy ridge to my right. Dread gripped my heart. Did fire officials know?
I pulled over to the shoulder to call 911. In less than a minute, just as I’d put on my hazard flashers, the entire six-lane highway was blanketed in thick black smoke. I could barely see the taillights ahead. The cars all slowed and stopped. On my right, I saw a ridge of flames rushing like a flood of bright orange water over the hillside.
It was over there — and then, it was nearly at the road’s edge. So fast.
Intuitively, I began to move to the left, across the three lanes of traffic, with the intention of escaping the flames. I needed to rescue my sister and my two cats at home.
As I approached the left emergency lane, intending to head back west on the eastbound side of the divided highway toward Boulder, dozens of other drivers around me in the dense smoke made the same decision in that moment. We began to turn an entire eastbound three-lane highway inside out. Like a murmuration of starlings, we maneuvered among each other, allowed cars to merge smoothly and without competition.
If any of us were to escape the flames now lapping at the edge of the highway, we would all need to escape. One by one, we rotated our cars and braided our three lanes into the far left lane, creeping toward safety – we hoped.
As we encountered the oncoming traffic from Boulder, they suddenly recognized the escape operation underway in front of them. Those of us closest to the flames and smoke needed more frequent stops to allow room for those still-eastbound vehicles – from sports cars to large trucks – to turn around and merge into the flow headed in the opposite direction.
No horns honked. No one yelled. We were patient, focused, and kind. I stopped for a tall van to turn and merge in front of me and pulled on the three masks I had in the car. Despite having my windows rolled up tight, the sheer power of the wind filled my car with smoke… so fast.
As I crept back toward Boulder along the concrete barrier that divides the highway, the winds were gusting east at 110 mph and flinging burning shrubs and flaming clumps of weeds through the air. The fire was just three lanes away, leaning in on the highway.
I realized that if one of the flaming, flying tumbleweeds came down or if the wall of flames began to cross the highway, I was driving a gas bomb, surrounded by similar gas bombs. I concocted a plan in which I would abandon my car, jump the concrete barrier, and run as fast as I could in the now-empty westbound lanes.
With one eye on the flames at the road’s edge and the other on the seamless coordination of now hundreds of vehicles that had reversed direction and were slowly moving away from danger, I felt oddly confident that this flock of strangers was going to make this escape work, for one and all.
In my rearview mirror, I saw the flames beginning to jump the empty highway. Finally, I was able to exit using the entrance ramp in South Boulder. The cars on Table Mesa Road, which normally feeds that entrance ramp, were in reverse – amazing! – moving back so the escaping cars could exit.
I phoned Molly and learned she was evacuating with her friends, only vaguely aware there was a bad fire somewhere. Once home, I prepared for possible evacuation, checked in on friends in the area and told family that Molly and I were both OK. That evening, I streamed the news on my laptop and saw many homes engulfed by flames. I stayed on alert until the winds began to subside late at night.
After midnight, it struck me. Hundreds of lives, including mine, could have been lost on U.S. 36, if not for the automatic understanding and remarkable collaboration of all the drivers. I don’t understand how a group of strangers, human beings with our own interests and cares, driving on a three-lane, 65 mph highway, suddenly became so united in purpose.
No words spoken. No hand signals. No face-to-face communication. We all did it in dark black smoke, efficiently, safely, and compassionately. The power of silent, shared communication.
Drivers often press onward through dangers, like fog and blowing snow. But had we not turned back, I realized we could have been part of another disaster if not for unconscious connectivity.
The next morning, the air was gray, putrid and heavy. I was sad and grateful. My heart was broken for all the people and animals who suffered so much and lost their homes. A short while later, it finally began to snow.
Safe in my nest, no longer part of that procession of drivers, I still felt connected.
Lyrysa Smith is a journalist, editor, caregiver and author of “A Normal Life: A Sister’s Odyssey Through Brain Injury.” She lives in Boulder.
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