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(Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

When LaVonne Phillips fled her home in Superior last December as the Marshall fire began its deadly rampage, one of the last things she saw was her Christmas tree covered in ornaments. 

And until she was able to find her way back to her home, which was spared by the flames, she was worried about what it would mean to lose those precious keepsakes hanging from its branches. 

“I was just thinking how heartbroken I would have been if we lost all of those,” she said.

Soon after, she and a friend began brainstorming about what the Christmas after the fire would look like for those who lost their homes and belongings and an idea sprouted: make new, homemade ornaments for those families.

The Marshall fire: One year later

It has been one year since the Marshall fire destroyed hundreds of houses and businesses in parts of Louisville, Superior and Boulder County. One year of sorting through what was lost. One year of trying to create a new normal. And one year of making a new home.

Read our series revisiting the Marshall fire one year later. >> SERIES

“We knew nothing we provided would replace what their children made or family heirlooms but it’s something they will still look back on forever,” Phillips said.

Ornaments are just part of what went up in flames in a fire that destroyed family photos, treasured heirlooms and other ties to the past as it barreled through more than 1,000 homes, killing two people. 

And in Superior, the town itself lost almost all of its physical connection to its history as a former mining town. The town history museum and nearly all its artifacts were lost. The former miner’s cottages and homes that made up the original town are almost entirely gone. 

While Superior continues to work on creating a new downtown, a project started years ago, the historic core, and some of the longtime residents who lived in former miners’ cottages there, will never be the same.

“It’s like a snow globe that got shaken up and things are settling not where they were before,” said Jenn Kaaoush, a recently elected member of the town board of trustees. “It’s going to affect every aspect of our community.”

Superior, which sits along U.S. 36 between Boulder and Denver, began as a small coal-mining town in the late 1800s and in recent years has become surrounded by large suburban-style neighborhoods flowing to the east, toward Flatiron Crossing mall. The Marshall fire arrived a few days after Christmas last year, and marched through the original town on a dry, windy day, destroying 400 homes in Superior and about 700 more throughout the region.

People pick up handmade ornaments in Superior.
Superior residents affected by the Marshall Fire pick up handmade Christmas tree ornaments during an event organized by community members. (Courtesy of Lora Covington)

But residents and town leaders of the town are refusing to let the loss define them. 

They’re working together to recognize what’s gone while also focusing on building new memories and finding new items to tie them to their past. Phillips and Lora Covington collected about 4,000 donated handmade ornaments, some of which they made themselves, to give to those who lost theirs in the fire. A local nonprofit is planning events where neighbors can write notes on the frames of rebuilt houses. The local historical commission is forging ahead with plans for a new museum. 

“This has been a terrible year, absolutely terrible,” Mayor Mark Lacis said. “But if there’s one aspect of this whole process that has emerged that has been the shining light of it all it’s been how the community has come together to help each other out.”

One group working to support residents as they rebuild is the nonprofit Superior Rising. The organization has held multiple events to bring the community together and support all those impacted by the fire. In the months after the tragedy, they organized twice monthly meetups for residents, they hosted block parties for folks as they took the next step of having their lots cleared, they advocated for those rebuilding to make the process as easy as possible and brought in experts to help with things like insurance.

“I think those of us who were watching from a different perspective, we understood pretty quickly that people were going to need something, anything to look forward to,” said Kaaoush, who is also a co-director for the organization.

This has been a terrible year, absolutely terrible. But if there’s one aspect of this whole process that has emerged that has been the shining light of it all it’s been how the community has come together to help each other out.

— Mayor Mark Lacis

Kaaoush has been touched by the stories of the community coming together to support those who lost everything. One Facebook group she monitors regularly shows people posting pictures of items they lost and it sends others digging through their homes to find something similar to offer them.

“I think that’s something that will be a long, long-term recovery process for people to re-collect things that are meaningful to them,” she said.

Kaaoush doesn’t think of the desire for lost items as being simply materialistic. These are connections to each family’s history and a way to remind them of their happiest times.

“The fear is that if you don’t have something to trigger the memory, maybe you’ve lost it forever,” she said. “There’s distrust in people’s own memories to be able to bring it all back.” 

For Superior Rising, it is about continuing to give people ways to create new memories. That’s why they’re planning to have “stud parties” once rebuilt homes begin popping up where folks can write messages on the frames of houses before they are covered.

“There’s some positive things to look forward to,” she said. “We’re trying to magnify the tiniest joys.” 

Town history

A few days after the fire ripped through town, Larry Dorsey was able to secure a special pass to re-enter the burn zone. While his home didn’t burn, another building close to his heart did not. 

The Superior Historical Museum, a former mining cabin built in 1908 that held every piece of history the town was able to find over the years, had collapsed in on itself. 

“It was a pretty sad sight to see,” said Dorsey, the chair of the town’s historical commission. “It was just awful. It was very shocking.”

Outside of the Superior museum before it burned down
The interior of the Superior Historical Museum

LEFT: The Superior Historical Museum was a small miner’s cottage built in 1908. RIGHT: The museum, which held every piece of history the town was able to find over the years, collapsed in on itself during the Marshall Fire. Nearly everything inside was destroyed. (Photos by Allyn Jarrett, Superior Historical Commission)

Inside had been four rooms that showed what life in Superior looked like in approximately the 1930s. There was a coal-burning stove in the kitchen, a sewing display, photos of schoolchildren and a scale diorama of the mine the town was founded on. 

All that remained was the twisted metal of a school desk, cast iron items such as a milk separator and an American flag. 

“To have these things that were directly connected to Superior, it’s just a big vacant spot there in our connection to the past,” he said. 

In the near future, the remnants of the museum will be housed in a bungalow-style building in Grasso Park that didn’t burn. The park, located by town hall, was named for farmer and miner Frank Grasso and illustrates how a small family farm operated in the late 1800s and early 1900s. 

Eventually, officials will rebuild the museum in its original spot, which is also where the schoolhouse once stood. 

The museum isn’t the only part of the town’s history Dorsey is worried about. He’s also concerned about the homes that made up that part of town.

“On the bigger scale of the loss of what we call original Superior is really tragic because the houses ranged in age from fairly new to going clear back to the early 1900s,” he said, “and it’s essentially all gone.” 

An aerial view of the burned neighborhood Sagamore neighborhood in Superior right after the Marshall fire.
An aerial view of the Sagamore neighborhood with some development all covered in snow a year after the Marshall fire.

LEFT: Foundations were all that remain of the Sagamore neighborhood in Superior right after the Marshall fire. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun) RIGHT: A view of the same neighborhood nearly a year later, Dec. 24, 2022. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

In the rebuilding process, residents will be able to design whatever types of homes they wish and won’t be asked to do so with the original styles in mind, Lacis said. 

“I think the primary motivation of the board has been how do we allow people to rebuild as quickly as possible and as economically as possible,” he said. “We don’t want to add insult to injury and add some sort of design guidelines or structural requirements.”

So far, the town has issued about 100 building permits. 

The development of downtown, which has been in the works for about a decade, will have some references to the town’s past, Lacis said. “But it’s still something that’s being built in 2022 and 2023. It’s not something that was historic.”

The hub, located in the north part of the town between Highway 36 and McCaslin Boulevard, will have a mix of restaurants, shopping, office spaces and homes. 

Dorsey said he would love to see some people choose to build homes with history in mind. Similar to the downtown project, the new homes will be built all at once, rather than gradually evolving over more than 100 years, like the original community. 

“The original town of Superior is going to appear dramatically different,” Dorsey said. “It won’t be little 1,000- to 1,500-square-foot houses. They’re already building huge houses on those lots.”

There are also concerns some of the folks who made up the character of the town won’t be able to afford rebuilding there.

Burned benches sit on a small block of cement surrounded by a dirt lot and leftover shopping cart.
A home missing due to the Marshall Fire inside Old Town Superior, Dec. 14, 2022. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“There’s a number of people who have spent essentially if not completely their whole lives in Superior, so their stories will be gone if they’re living farther away from Superior in the future,” he said.

Dorsey was also the first participant in an effort to create an oral history of the Marshall fire. The project, organized by the Carnegie Library for Local History housed by the Boulder Public Library, will feature in-depth interviews with those impacted by the fire to provide a deep understanding of that day. 

The Carnegie Library for Local History features collections from all over Boulder County. 

“This might be an opportunity to spread out where we keep historical information about Boulder County,” said Cyns Nelson, who coordinates the library’s oral history program. “We’re thinking about how we can remember these buildings that were destroyed, how we can through people’s recollections, to the extent possible, rebuild an understanding of some of what was lost through these recordings.”

A hopeful look for the future

Despite the painful, traumatic memories that have haunted Superior for the past year, what stands out to many are the ways the community has found to support one another and worked to come back together.

“I think one thing we’re noticing is the resilience of the people,” Dorsey said. “People are coming back strong and doing their best to get their houses reconstructed and resume their lifestyle.” 

From the aid folks gave in the immediate aftermath of the fire to events like Phillips and Covington’s, Lacis said he’s seen the community come back stronger. As for its history, he says the story isn’t over.

“There’s definitely been an effort to preserve the history but also recognize that history continues to happen,” he said. “The fire, whether we like it or not, is going to be one of the defining aspects of Superior’s history.”

Soon, the history museum plans to have a new display, one that tells the story of the Marshall fire and the community that rose from the ashes. The Superior of the future is unlikely to look much like it did before, but for some, that represents an opportunity to look toward tomorrow.

“The fire has happened, we cannot have back what we had,” Kaaoush said. “It’s OK to be sad about it. … There’s something that comes out of it that’s more than just this tragedy and I have to look forward to that or it’s just really super sad.”

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her reporting and photography. Elliott graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in editorial journalism and minors in both business and Spanish. She is also an avid rock climber, snowboarder and hiker. Twitter: @ElliottWenzler