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A Wildfire Sheds Light: Mutual Aid in Suburbia?

A Wildfire Sheds Light: Mutual Aid in Suburbia?


This is Part 1 of a multi-part series that explores the ongoing impacts of the Marshall Fire through interviews with survivors and analysis of the role of climate change and alternatives to recovery such as mutual aid.

Photo by Skinner Myers

Capital, ethnicity, and class

Fallon Voorheis-Mathews, resident of Louisville, a nurse, and the owner of an aerial dance company, grew up in the mountains near Glenwood Springs where she knew a family whose house burned down in the 2002 Burning Mountain Coal Seam Fire. As an adult living on the suburban plains “across the street from Costco,” she never imagined that she too might lose her home to fire. But, as Fallon points out, climate change is everyone’s problem, not an isolated issue restricted to sparsely populated areas: “Because of global warming, this is going to keep happening. And it’s going to happen in our cities.” High concentrations of capital will not protect us from climate change — not even those of us for whom capitalism seems to work well.

What’s more, long before the Marshall Fire, numerous hardworking residents of Louisville and Superior were already facing challenges as immigrants, students, and small-business owners. And large numbers of ordinary people living hand-to-mouth perform the many low-paying service jobs that make “The Boulder County Experience” possible, though they often cannot afford to live here.

Boulder and the surrounding areas toward Denver and Fort Collins are notably wealthy and visually spectacular, famous for a high quality of life often characterized by such values as fitness, health food, and new age spirituality. Many people, myself included, are drawn to this area because we love the outdoors.

If that all sounds very white, it is. Or, as one Louisville resident, an “invisible Latina” who identifies as both white and Hispanic, likes to say, the area is “mostly white.” Another resident of Louisville, a Chinese immigrant, describes the demographics as including “a healthy amount of Asians — enough so that it’s not uncommon to see thirty-something Asians with their small children in the park or at a playground, for example — but not many Black people.”

An African American professor notes that when he lived in Louisville during the year before the fire, it was rare for him to see other Black people there — and when he did, it would always be in Target, so he could never tell whether they were local or just visiting to shop. As shown in the recent award-winning documentary This Is [Not] Who We Are, people of color, who are numerous in Boulder County and have always been here, often experience terrifying levels of bias roiling beneath the shiny happy surface.

The most vulnerable

Somehow, people working low-paying service jobs manage to scrape together enough to cover the necessities, whether it’s exorbitant rents and overpriced groceries or the cost of a long commute to and from work. All the while, the size and vulnerability of the local unhoused community continues to grow, in part due to inflation. Between capitalism and climate change, the unhoused may be in the most danger of all.

Fire at first has a way of quickly undermining socioeconomic differences. As Marshall survivor Henry Wong said, “When a natural disaster occurs, everybody is equal. No one is better, and no one is worse.” In any disaster, everyone needs the same things, and nothing else helps. As a result of surviving Marshall, many have acquired new understandings of power structures and the necessity of networks of mutual support — including a renewed sense of what it means to be human. 

Renowned author Rebecca Solnit describes how the effect of disasters can create openings for “radical social reorganization.” That doesn’t mean that people know how to go about it — certainly not over the long-term — but the seeds of transformation can be opened by the heat.


Carolyn Elerding
Carolyn Elerding (she/they), PhD, is a writer, editor, activist, and former professor based in Boulder. Elerding’s writing on cultural and social issues like diversity, equality, and the climate can also be found in such venues as Ms. magazine and The Real News network. Find them online at @celerding @celerding@toot.io https://carolynelerding.com/

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