Wearing other people’s clothes and living in apartments that feel empty, families displaced by the Marshall fire have started over from nothing. It’s been six months since the wind-whipped fire skipped through Boulder County, burning about 1,000 homes in Superior and Louisville.
Since then, winter has turned to summer, and thousands still are in limbo, renting houses and apartments temporarily in the hopes of finding their way home. The Colorado Sun kept in touch with four families we first interviewed in the days after the most destructive fire in state history reduced their homes to ash. Many vowed then to rebuild, and to recreate the sense of community that they had lost.
One family has changed course and bought a home 2 miles from their old one. Another plans to break ground in August on a new home in the spot where their old one stood. And this summer, the future remains uncertain for the other two families who left behind almost everything they owned in the rush to save their lives.
Whether Marshall fire survivors rebuild or replace, mom Gwen Brodsky said, it’s about “finding our way back to the families we were six months ago.”
Deciding not to rebuild
The Brodskys moved into their new house this month, a home filled with another family’s memories. The family that planted the blooming dianthus in the front yard. The one that packed up their dishes, beds and four children when they outgrew the home and moved to a larger one.
The house feels naked, Gwen Brodsky said, even after she unpacked their boxes.
Brodsky, her husband and their two children fled their home with only the belongings they could grab within 10 minutes, including her son’s hamster. The Marshall fire blew through their Louisville neighborhood, Coal Creek Ranch, soon after and burned it down.
They had been in limbo in an apartment, mostly empty of material possessions save for donations of clothes, blankets and plates. There was comfort in wearing other people’s sweaters and earrings, in tossing a salad in someone else’s bowl.
That’s how the Brodskys feel about their new home.
“To use their history,” Gwen said, “because our history is gone.”
The new home is 2 miles from the old one, now a bare lot next to other bare lots. The twins, who will start eighth grade in the fall, can ride their bikes to their school, Monarch K-12. An interior designer who used donations to help people displaced by the Marshall fire transformed each of the kid’s bedrooms — Lily’s is bohemian, with ivy and a sheepskin rug, while Ben’s looks like a 19th century study, covered in wood.
After the fire, the Brodskys thought they would rebuild, that they would return to the close-knit neighborhood where they had lived for 11 years. The neighbors set up Slack channels to stay in touch, and gathered in a community area at the Brodskys’ apartment complex to hear from developers, builders and lawyers willing to rebuild Coal Creek Ranch. They created a Google drive to share the builders’ plans.
No one builder could take on all 140 homes lost in Coal Creek Ranch. But a few said they could do 10, or even 40. Some families are choosing the custom route, hiring their own architect. No one was competitive, trying to rush to the front of the line, Gwen said.
“I cannot do justice to how noncompetitive this was,” she said. “It was astonishing. It was a river coming downstream to sweep everyone up and carry us along. There was no judgment. There was just an incredible amount of information sharing. Just boosting each other to meet this test and get home again.”
“There was a big, collective momentum and we were part of that fabric.”
But along the way, after near-daily conversations to weigh the cost and how long it would take to rebuild, the Brodskys decided to buy a house instead. They found one in a matter of days, and moved out of their apartment just as the six-month lease was ending.
“The community is so tight that it was profoundly difficult,” Gwen said. “We want to stay in our community and go home, and we can do that without building.”
The ash and melted metal that was their house has been cleared from the Brodsky’s property in Coal Creek Ranch. They won’t sell to a developer, Gwen said. Instead, they will make a “conscientious” choice to help keep the neighborhood intact — possibly selling to a friend’s parents who want to move into Coal Creek Ranch to live near their grandchildren, or to the colleagues of a neighbor who works at the nearby hospital.
“The Brodskys are gone,” Gwen said, “but if we could give the neighborhood some delightful neighbors, that would be grand.”
They saved only a few relics after their home was “vaporized.” Ben kept a camera that looks like a geological specimen, a fused mass of melted glass and metal.
When the family wanted to camp this month, Gwen bought a tent on Craigslist. The seller, upon hearing she lost her home in the fire, gave her two sleeping bags and mats for which he would accept no payment.
The Brodskys hardly cried at all in the past six months. It was mostly work and James and Gwen were business partners, “running all the traps.” This was a couple who quickly made a plan the morning after the fire — she walked into their neighborhood to assess the damage and he went looking for apartments. They even joked about making T-shirts: “Grieve Later.”
But after they moved the last of their things to their new house, the tears came. “Finally, I could recognize the relief of closing one chapter, of recognizing what I have been doing for the last six months,” Gwen said. “How did I do that?”
Rebuilding on Enclave Circle
A few months after the Marshall fire burned Cindy and John Ray’s Louisville home — taking with it John’s tools, Cindy’s sewing kits, and a Barbie Dreamhouse their granddaughters had just gotten for Christmas — Santa came again.
John and his granddaughters, ages 2 and 5, wrote a letter to the North Pole explaining what had happened.
That a Dec. 30 fire had torched more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County. That all but four of the homes in the Rays’ old neighborhood burned. That the Dreamhouse was gone. And that 22 years of memories — china gifted to the Rays at their wedding, Cindy’s late father’s coin collection — were now clustered in the corner of their garage, charred and chipped. The coins had been burned pitch black.
“We had cleaned out his house,” Cindy said, referring to her father, who died last year. “If he’d lived another six months, these would have been in his home.”
Six months after the Marshall fire, Cindy and John say they’ve been fortunate. Their daughter-in-law found them a rental house in a manicured Broomfield neighborhood. The real estate agent rallied neighbors who left gift cards on the kitchen table and rainbow comforters for their granddaughters. The Rays haven’t had to fight their insurance company.
And in February, “Santa” came again — bringing with him a new Barbie Dreamhouse for the Rays’ granddaughters. They call it “Grammy’s Fire House,” Cindy said. It’s in the living room of their spacious home.
But there are bad days, too.
Cindy had delivered The Denver Post to homes for 19 years. She lost her job after the fire. Her paper route was burned.
John’s father died in February. Cindy was hospitalized with an infection.
Every day brings a reminder of something that was lost. Cindy’s mother’s bracelet. A Bible. The threads and needles she’d collected in her sewing room.
“As the summer approaches — ‘oh, the lawn mower!’” she said. “Change of season, conversations will bring up stuff and we’re like ‘oh, yeah, we don’t have that anymore.’”
Cindy and John have begun rebuilding their home on Enclave Circle, and hope to break ground in August. They keep in touch with their old neighbors. They just learned two neighbors won’t be rebuilding. The Rays bought little to outfit the rental house, knowing it’s temporary. They just got a bed.
“Something to sleep in,” Cindy said, though she hasn’t slept well in months. “I don’t know what’s keeping me awake.”
Sometimes she thinks her family is “plugging along.” Other times she’s “sitting around thinking, ‘Gosh, maybe I’m so far behind everybody emotionally. Everybody seems so much better than me.’”
Her acquaintances assure her that they’re not.
“It’s not easy. None of it is easy. At all,” Cindy said. “Some days I have — we both, but more me — have days where I’m so down I can’t do anything. And then the next week is good and I’m up and I’m not thinking of the sadness.”
On a good day in June, Cindy gestured around the rental home and expressed gratitude for the generosity of the community.
“Anything you do see was given to us — everything,” she said.
Donated toys spill out of one room near the front door, filled by “the littles,” Cindy said, referring to her grandchildren.
John works in a temporary home office, furnished with chairs and a table donated by their new neighbors.
The house has silverware, pots, picture books, a closet stuffed with kids’ clothes, including a Belle costume — all gifts or items Cindy was able to pick up at a donation site in an old Nordstrom department store in Broomfield.
Cindy’s thinking of making a mosaic out of the burned items John was able to retrieve from the ruins of their Louisville home.
“There’s no good way through it,” John said. “Other than you accept what life brings and you move forward.”
“We’re going to have to change”
After everything Christina Eisert owned turned to ash, she set out to replace what felt familiar.
She purchased a sweater, identical to her favorite one, and flatware to match her grandmother’s set. She looked for spoons that reminded her of the ones her grandmother, an Irish immigrant, used when teaching Eisert how to cook and had used thousands of times to stir concoctions in the kitchen before passing them down to her.
But when Eisert took the utensils out of the box, her body began to shake and she started to cry. She quickly put the box away.
She couldn’t bear to wear the sweater.
And a mug she used for her morning coffee — which she had forgotten at her mother’s home before the Marshall fire tore through her Sagamore neighborhood — she could no longer sip from.
“I couldn’t stand looking at it. It was so emotional to look at this stupid mug and just be like, ‘Oh, that lone surviving thing,’” Eisert said. “The stuff that reminds us of what we lost has been really hard to deal with.”
Eisert’s new two-bedroom apartment in Louisville, where she lives with her two teenage sons and two dogs, isn’t a far drive from where they escaped the fire in the nick of time, as flakes of flaming ash the size of dinner plates floated down from the sky above her home.
But it’s far from what they are used to — somewhat intentionally.
She purposely avoided the hues of green sea glass and ocean blues that once dominated the living room of her old home, choosing instead decor inspired by Texas Hill Country, where she used to live before moving to Superior. Surrounded by photos of blue birds and butterflies, hangs a large canvas of a longhorn cow in a field of bluebonnets. Woven macrame hangings dot the opposite wall.
“I tried to make it feel comfy, a little funky and fun, and lived in,” Eisert said. “Make it feel at home.”
Each item was purchased with money donated by others, many of them strangers, through a GoFundMe page that raised more than $44,000 for her family.
Still, memories of the fire come back each and every day. She can still hear the loud sucking noise as the fire inhaled oxygen from the air around her and can still see sheets of ash dripping from the sky.
“Everywhere, hundreds of them. And they were all on fire,” she recalled.
Nightmares still trouble her sleep. In the middle of the night, she imagines flames engulfing a random corner of her home.
To process the loss, she has found comfort in documenting it. Eisert teaches at the University of Colorado and is writing for a new journal at the school, discussing her family’s experience as survivors of wildfire and as climate refugees, focusing on on how climate change is turning things that are familiar into memories.
“When we say climate change, I think that what people really need to recognize is that it’s us that changes,” Eisert said. “We are going to have to change. We’re being forced to change.”
“Not what you want for your kids”
Among the first relics Jaden Crawley found while sifting through the ash and debris that had been her home only three weeks before was part of a clay bracelet adorned with one word, faded but unmistakable: hope.
The fragment was tarnished, flecked with dust and dirt and severed from the elastic chain that had held it together — like so much of the rest of the teenager’s life.
And yet the message of hope remained.
Jaden, now 16, and her sister Julia, 18, fled Superior with barely any time to spare as the Marshall fire bore down on their house in the Sagamore subdivision. Home alone at the time the fire set their community ablaze, the siblings dodged the flames while still in their pajamas, whisking little more than themselves and their dogs to safety.
For two hazy weeks after the devastating fire, Jaden, Julia and their mother, Stephanie Baer, lived in a Boulder hotel room that smelled like takeout. In mid-January, the family moved to a temporary home in Boulder where they have remained. Baer, who is the executive director of the Westminster Public Schools Foundation, is still exploring her options as she looks to rebuild. Her insurance claims have yet to be settled, and with her daughters growing up, she anticipates rebuilding a home that she will resell when she can retire, hopefully within the next decade.
They have felt lucky, in spite of losing their home and most of their belongings, and grateful to have a house, which they found through a friend of a friend, who decided to pull her second home off the market so that Baer and her daughters could stay there.
Their steps forward started small, particularly as the fire haunted them with constant reminders in the months immediately following. Toward the end of February, Jaden was struggling to sleep and would often curl up in Baer’s bed for comfort. Some nights when she did manage to fall asleep, she was tormented by nightmares of a fire erupting in her kitchen, where she was afraid of the stove and its open flames.
Once, while trying to relax as a family watching a television show, an episode they tuned into featured a fire in a kitchen.
“It just feels like the universe does not want us to have silence,” Jaden said in February.
Since then, thoughts of the fire and all its destruction have quieted down for both sisters as the rest of their lives have picked up. While they had a hard time making it through a full day of classes for part of last semester, they have fully embraced summer, with jobs and time with new friends and less pressure. In the fall, Julia will turn the page to a new chapter as she starts college at Colorado State University.
Still, there are moments that pull them back to the day they lost practically everything they owned — including when they look for one of their belongings only to realize it perished, or when the weather turns hot and dry — but those moments are now accompanied by a sense of resilience. Gratitude, even.
Before the fire, Julia said she never really ventured beyond her comfort zone.
“I look at life a lot differently than I did before the fire,” she said during an interview earlier this month, adding, “I just feel like I have more of, like, a positive spin on my life. So I feel like that’s like my new normal.”
Their mother is also striding forward, but more slowly. Baer, a single mother, is still grappling with an overwhelming sense of grief while also trying to navigate the insurance process and make decisions about the future of their home, absorbing time that would otherwise be spent with her daughters.
She tries to remember the past six months haven’t been all bad. Julia starred as one of the leads in her school musical and graduated from Monarch High School. Jaden got her driver’s license and played in a regional tennis tournament.
But she’s wracked with a lot of guilt and is often left “spinning.”
Her daughters have now lived through several rounds of hardship: her divorce from their father in 2009, her breast cancer diagnosis — she’s now in remission — a pandemic and the loss of their home.
“I feel like that’s sort of an epic fail,” Baer said through tears. “And it’s not that it’s my fail. I don’t internalize it that way. I know I couldn’t control any of those things. But that’s not what you want for your kids.”