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Ava Schuler lived in the same house off Dillon Road in Louisville for nearly 18 years, but since the Marshall fire left almost all of her neighborhood in ashes close to a year ago, she has lived in five places, uncertain how to make each one of them home and hesitant to even try.

“It’s hard not having any permanence and knowing where we’re living isn’t permanent,” Schuler, 18, said. “So you kind of don’t want to make it feel like a home when you’re going to be moving in a couple months anyways.”

She is also wracked with anxiety and what-ifs — a chronic side effect of the fire that hasn’t gone away.

Long after the flames died out and the debris of charred homes and cars was hauled away, the mental toll the Marshall fire took on kids and teens still lingers. 

For some, the sound of roaring winds or the sight of an open flame takes them right back to the end of last December, stirring up an uncontrollable fear of another inferno. For others, all the stress from the fire withered some of their deepest relationships. And many are still figuring out how to feel safe again after the destruction of everything that felt familiar.

“Trauma isn’t something that just leaves our system,” said Sanam Pejuhesh, a child therapist and parenting coach in Louisville. “It stays with us, but our perception of the traumatic experience can change with support, with healing.”

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

Schuler was easing into her last semester at Monarch High School in Louisville when the Marshall fire devoured her childhood home. She was headed to Winter Park with her dad and sister to ski when she first learned of smoke billowing through her neighborhood in a FaceTime call with her mom. Within about an hour, her mom and brother were fleeing their home, grabbing whatever they could — including Schuler’s medication and contact lenses.

The family hung onto a “sliver of hope” that their house had survived, Schuler said, even as they watched a news segment broadcast from the roof of nearby Centura Avista Adventist Hospital that showed their neighborhood up in flames. A phone call from a neighbor confirmed their home was gone.

Remains of a Louisville neighborhood following the Marshall Fire are seen on Jan. 21. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Schuler said the gravity of the catastrophe set in the next morning, when her brother returned to their neighborhood and showed their family live video of the remains of their dad’s car and a single brick pillar from the garage that was the only part of the house left standing. They had nothing left but their memories.

“And there weren’t going to be any more,” Schuler said.

She banded together with friends who were also grieving the loss of their homes, but the days immediately after the fire brought a torrent of emotions. And then none.

“After a day or two, you can cry all day and you can only get so many tears out,” Schuler said, adding that after a couple days, “it felt really numb and I couldn’t feel any more emotion about it because I’d felt so much.”

The first few months following the tragedy tested her mental health as she stopped going to school regularly. On the days she did attend, she often felt detached.

“Mentally I was not at school anymore,” Schuler said. “I wasn’t really trying or anything in school. It was kind of the last thing on my mind.”

Her own struggles were compounded by the challenges her parents faced in piecing back together their lives and sorting out insurance and a place to live. She remembers seeing her dad cry for the first time in her life.

“It was taxing to see them go through all that stress and know that I couldn’t do anything to help them,” she said.

Her family shuffled from one temporary home to another, first moving in with her grandparents in Denver before relocating to a vacant rental property in Boulder owned by a family friend. Last August, the family moved to a rental in Louisville and about a week ago transitioned to yet another rental in Superior. 

In the midst of so much moving, Schuler started her freshman year at Northeastern University in Boston where she is majoring in business. She feels much stronger than she did a year ago, though moving across the country hasn’t put any distance between her and the anxiety triggered by the fire.

“I’m more aware of my surroundings and everything that I own and what I’m doing with my life,” Schuler said. “I take it much more seriously than I definitely used to because it’s a lot more important to me now.”

“Mentally I was not at school anymore,” Ava Schuler said of her mindset after the Marshall fire. “I wasn’t really trying or anything in school. It was kind of the last thing on my mind.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Since the fire, high winds and open flames spook her. Her family has stopped lighting candles. At school she watches to make sure nothing is left touching the radiator, and she is quick to act when a fire alarm goes off, grabbing a few necessities and exiting in case of an actual fire.

She still yearns to be back in her former home, tucked safely in her bedroom with her favorite stuffed animal, a lamb named Lammy that had been with her from birth until the day of the fire. But she continues to cope through the difficult moments by turning to her hometown friends who know her pain firsthand and, more and more, by cracking jokes about the fire. 

Humor has become a small antidote, helping her “make light of a really dark situation” and “find some form of (a) silver lining.”

Grieving relationships and a sense of safety

Building a sense of connection with other kids who experienced the same degree of loss in the Marshall fire has helped children whose homes were reduced to rubble, said Pejuhesh, the child therapist in Louisville.

“They weren’t alone in this, and I think that was one of the pieces that has helped kids build resilience and work through it. … They have each other to go through it with,” Pejuhesh said.

She has worked with about a dozen kids directly affected by the Marshall fire over the past year — none older than age 11 — with many expressing their emotions through their behavior, sleep patterns and eating.

The fire “really uprooted their sense of just safety in home,” Pejuhesh said.

Kids’ responses to the fire have ranged from immediate fear and stress to a delayed sense of trauma, she said, with kids reeling after the fire for many reasons, whether they lost a home, were forced to flee, saw flames or picked up on their family’s anxiety.

“The collateral effect was really pretty tremendous itself even beyond the loss,” she said.

Trauma from a major fire can also leave kids tiptoeing through new experiences, like traveling away from home or being away from parents, and can affect their relationships, Pejuhesh said. 

Sometimes at night, Ashton Reiker will let himself cry as he reflects on everything he has lost. The fire destroyed Ashton’s mom’s rental house in Old Town Superior, where he lived part-time for almost two years.

The 15-year-old kept more of his things at his dad’s house in Boulder than at his mom’s, but losing a home that had been filled with so many memories, and realizing that he would never be able to make new memories there, “kind of sealed off a part of my heart,” Ashton said, and left him feeling “broken.”

His relationship with his mom has also been tested, said Ashton, now a freshman at Fairview High School in Boulder. He used to split his time equally between his parents, who are divorced, but in the past eight or nine months he estimates he has stayed with his mom no more than 10 nights. After the fire, his mom moved in with family in Longmont, a 40-minute drive from Ashton’s school. She wasn’t in a very stable living environment, he said, and she struggled in the aftermath of losing everything she owned, including photos of him, his brother and sister, and possessions from her own dad, who died when she was a teen.

It was hard for Ashton to watch his mom’s mental health and relationships deteriorate, including the one they share. He said he has tried to explain to her why he has chosen to live with his dad more since it allows him to be closer to school, but their conversations have often blown up into arguments.

Yet he has come a long way since the first few months after the fire, when he lived in a mental haze, constantly questioning how life would be different if his mom’s house hadn’t burned down.

“It was kind of like there was something in the back of my head that wouldn’t let me focus,” Ashton said, noting that his grades dropped significantly.

Trauma can have an outsize impact on developing brains, affecting how young people function and how well they retain information, said Liz Bogetveit, a licensed professional counselor in Boulder. 

Traumatic episodes can inhibit the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain, and activate the limbic system, which controls emotions, Bogetveit said. That leaves the brain on high alert for potential harm and triggers a flight, fight or freeze response when it senses danger.

It becomes a lot more difficult to learn, Pejuhesh said, as kids are “just dealing with trying to anchor into a sense of safety in this moment, from moment to moment.”

The limbic system will release chemicals as a stress response, leading to physical symptoms like headaches and stomach pain, Bogetveit said. 

“That is a natural part of your body trying to manage through these emotions,” she said.

Additionally, as kids’ and teens’ brains are still developing, they are still learning how to regulate their emotions — the job of the brain’s frontal lobe that does not fully develop until age 25, Bogetveit said. That means that kids struggle to understand life-altering events, like a wildfire, and the emotions and uncertainty that come with them.

“When you don’t know what’s going to happen, that increases your anxiety because your brain prepares for the worst,” she said.

To ease kids’ concerns, she recommends that parents and caregivers talk to them about what’s going on “in a child-friendly way” based on their age, reassure them that they are safe and keep them away from media coverage. It’s also important for adults to remember that kids and teens look up to them and will take on their own stress and anguish, she said.

She encourages parents to seek out help through therapy if their kids continue to struggle while recovering from the fire. That was one coping skill that became key for Ashton.

For a while, he said he tried to pretend that his life was going to carry on as usual. But that illusion soon evaporated. His trauma from the tragedy repeatedly bubbled back up as more people learned his home had burned and tried to console him.

“People kept reminding me about it,” Ashton said. “It wasn’t their intention to, but they were just trying to offer me their condolences and everything. And I felt grateful for that, but there was a hard side of that as well.”

Other classmates were outright cruel.

Ashton said that as word of his family’s devastation spread among his peers, his situation at school devolved into a “downward spiral,” with some kids mocking him for losing so much. During one lunch period within two weeks of the Marshall fire, he was with a group of friends when thoughts of the inferno began to consume him and he teared up. One of his tablemates called him a loser and joked about him being depressed after his house burned down.

“It was pretty hard just hearing those words actually being said to me,” Ashton said.

It was a moment of harsh reality for the teen, who tried to step back and recognize that his peer had other things going on in his life that caused him to lash out. It also made Ashton realize that he would have to accept that his house was gone and “life moves on.”

Homes are being rebuilt in the Coal Creek neighborhood near south Louisville on Dec. 20. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

In trying to recover from the fire, he has found comfort in listening to music, talking to his therapist and confiding in one of his best friends. Still, the loss of important relationships sticks with him.

“I know that it wasn’t my fault, but I still feel responsible for that in some way,” he said. “And I hate seeing the fact that my mom has changed so much because of this.”

Erica Breunlin

Email: erica@coloradosun.com Twitter: @EricaBreunlin