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Jeffrey Durbin started his first days on the job as Louisville’s city manager when the Marshall Fire ignited in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

LOUISVILLE — Jeffrey Durbin was a private citizen living in a fifth floor apartment in Denver when he looked through his windows and saw smoke rising to the north. 

The next morning, he showed up at 7:30 a.m. for his first day as city manager in Louisville — ground zero of the Marshall fire.

“I’ve pretty much been working ever since,” he said, in an interview from Louisville’s city hall a week later.  

Durbin has been responding to the state’s most destructive wildfire since his first hour on the job — well before he had a chance to set up his work voicemail or learn how to use the office printer.

On his first day, U.S. 36 into Louisville was still closed, leaving Durbin to follow Siri down side streets into the town of 21,000 people where neighborhoods still were smoldering. 

Days 2 through 7 were a blur. A snowstorm sent temperatures plunging. Crews rushed to restore gas and power. The city water system was under a boil order.

On his eighth day as city manager, President Joe Biden came to survey the destruction and pledge assistance to the rebuilding effort. 

And by Day 9, Durbin was talking about plans for debris removal, federal funding, and a still-not-restored water system, when the sleepless whirl of the past week hit him: He choked up. 

“You see pictures of it, you see videos of it. It doesn’t prepare you for when you actually see how bad it is,” Durbin said, turning to face a wall in a first floor room of the darkened town hall to compose himself. “It’s been hard.”

Neighbors embrace after seeing the destruction left by the Marshall Wildfire in Louisville, Colo., Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Neighborhood damaged from Marshall Fire on Friday afternoon, Dec. 31, 2021, in Louisville, Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“Brotherhood of folks who have gone through disasters”

Durbin, a former town manager for Fraser and Frisco, has not moved to Louisville — a requirement of his job — but he has already joined the ranks of mayors, town councilors and city managers that have seen once-unthinkable disasters upend their towns, their official duties and their residents’ lives.

“To say that a disaster like this changes everything is a massive undersell,” said Chris Rogers, who was elected to the city council in Santa Rosa, California, 11 months before the Tubbs fire destroyed about 3,000 homes in the community roughly 60 miles north of San Francisco.

Rogers and other public officials from communities wracked by climate disasters, from Malibu to Paradise to Lyons, reached out after seeing the Marshall fire destroy more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County. They offered advice and a kind of unofficial welcome of the mayors and managers of Louisville and Superior to a club of disaster mayors that continues to grow as destructive wildfires occur more frequently in the American West. 

“There’s this brotherhood of folks who have gone through disasters, who don’t want to see anybody else go through what they went through,” Rogers said. 

Some local officials, like Durbin, took office just days after a disaster. 

In Malibu, California, several city councilors had not yet been sworn into their new jobs when the 2018 Woolsey fire swept through, destroying more than 400 homes in the city.

In Paradise, California, Mayor Steve Crowder was elected two days before flames destroyed nearly the entire town and left more than 80 people dead. The town of 27,000 dwindled to 2,000 in the weeks that followed.

More than three years later, every road in Paradise is under construction. The demographic makeup of the town, once a bedroom community with many retirees, completely changed, said Crowder, who lost a home and business in the fire.  

But there are bright spots: The population has returned to about 7,500, some 1,300 homes have been rebuilt, one high school that survived the fire is getting a major facelift and restaurants are starting to reopen. 

“I feel a lot better today than than I did three years ago,” Crowder said.

Rebuilding — and healing — takes time 

Two months after the Marshall fire, debris removal has been delayed. Rebuilding is expected to take years, and the work is beginning amid a shortage of housing in Boulder County, soaring construction costs and limited building materials

Durbin said the city is hiring additional people to approve rebuilding permits, and city workers from Longmont, a much larger Boulder County city, are working temporarily for Louisville. He arranged for Louisville employees to meet with counselors after many spent two weeks working 18-hour days. And he weathered withering community anxiety about whether people rebuilding their homes must abide by Louisville’s ambitious new green-building codes. (They don’t, the city council decided.)

He has postponed his search for a place to live in Louisville, where 550 houses burned. He doesn’t want to compete with displaced residents, he said.

The town of Lyons, 26 miles north, could offer a window into the long road to recovery ahead for Louisville and Superior. More than eight years after 17 inches of rainfall flooded 14 Colorado counties, leaving $4 billion worth of catastrophic damage and at least eight deaths in its wake, Lyons is still wrapping up a final rebuilding project — a pedestrian bridge over St. Vrain Creek — and now has a backlog of neglected infrastructure updates on the books.

Connie Sullivan, who was Lyons’ mayor and mayor pro tem during the recovery, said the early days of the disaster were surreal. The need to get residents home and restore gas and electric power immediately displaced the town’s previous priority. They’d just formed a task force to build a community swimming pool.

Homes and vehicles destroyed by Marshall Fire in a neighborhood near Harper Lake in Louisville on Friday morning, Dec. 31, 2021, in Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“You can’t process what you’re seeing and how changed everything is,” said Sullivan, who remembers looking out her back deck and seeing dark water where she’d normally see grassy fields.

Lyons was evacuated for more than two months. One-fifth of the houses were damaged or destroyed. Miles of sewer and water lines were damaged. With town hall, the library and the public works department inundated, town officials had no access to barricades, cones, vehicles or records, said longtime town administrator Victoria Simonsen. They signed an emergency proclamation by flashlight in the fire department.

Two mobile home parks with about 50 homes — nearly all the affordable housing in town — were destroyed and never rebuilt. 

“We lost 100 people that night. Immediately. Forever,” Simonsen said. 

A 40-unit affordable housing complex is now being developed and there are six Habitat for Humanity homes in town. 

Residents rebuilt about 30 homes, each floodproofed or elevated, she said. The added cost of the mitigation requirements drew painful pushback, but Simonsen said the town pushed forward with what they thought was in residents’ best interest.

Samaritan’s Purse volunteers sift through ashes to look for personal possessions of the Christensen family that remain after the Marshall Fire on Feb. 16, 2022, in Louisville. Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization, provides disaster relief services nationwide. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Boulder County workers spray hydro-mulch onto areas burnt by the Marshall Fire on Feb. 16, 2022, in Louisville. The hydro-mulch, engineered to seal itself to the ground and other surfaces, prevents potential ash toxins from becoming airborne through the wind and nearby waterways. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“We came to acknowledge that residents — at that point in their grief — were not able to identify and acknowledge that in the long run, it would be better if they mitigated,” she said. “They just wanted to get back home.”

Lyons also bought out 28 homes in the floodplain and spent $75 million rebuilding public infrastructure. The town received more than 100 federal and state grants. 

The town’s median home average has leapt to $800,000 from around $365,000 in 2013, Simonsen said. 

It takes a toll

The years of recovery took a toll on town staff, at the time 14 people including a one-person finance department. That figure more than tripled during the disaster, with the state covering the cost of hiring new employees for six years. 

Simonsen became very sick about three months into the recovery. The entire public works staff left after a year, which Simonsen attributes to exhaustion.

Among the darkest parts of the flood’s aftermath was facing residents Simonsen had lived alongside for years who were frustrated and seeking quick solutions she couldn’t provide. The anger became personal and devolved into name-calling. 

Another was figuring out complicated contracting and reimbursement policies. 

Larger cities can hire experts and pay for costs out of pocket. Lyons — with a budget of around $1.1 million at the time — had to apply for federal funds and is still waiting for millions of dollars to be reimbursed, Simonsen said.

Simonsen is now working with FEMA to put out a curriculum for city managers responding to disasters, saying they seem to be happening more and more frequently

“I feel for Jeff,” Simonsen said, of Louisville’s city manager. “He’s drinking out of a… fire hose right now for sure.”

Sullivan, the former mayor, also texted the mayors of Louisville and Superior after the Marshall fire: “No need to respond,” she recalled. “I know you’re incredibly busy right now, but I just want you to know there are people here that are willing to help.”

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.

Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma