This is Part 3 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
Part 3 looks at the lack of mutual aid during the surreal and traumatic experiences following the fire
When Marshall burned, existing support systems like the automatic SMS alerts proved grossly inadequate, and many people were simply unaccustomed to helping anyone they didn’t know. Outside of their households and families, many were revealed to be very isolated, and all lacked meaningful government support, despite voting and paying taxes.
It didn’t take long for shock to set in as individuals and families pursued atomized strategies, reaching frantically for safety and information as they fled their neighborhoods. Familiar places became terrifyingly surreal.
Carole Billingham of Louisville, an intuitive counselor and life coach, describes how even though almost everyone she saw seemed calm and alert during the evacuation process, time slowed down. At one point, Carole and her husband, Steve, drove past a group of sardonic teenagers in gas masks walking in the opposite direction, back into the neighborhood, like extras in a sci-fi satire rather than human beings whose lives and communities were at risk.
Makia Minich lived in Superior’s Sagamore neighborhood, which was entirely destroyed in the fire. At first, Makia and his fiancée, Kat, weren’t worried, because small fires are common in the region. They knew it was time to go “when the skies started changing color.” By the time they had gathered their two cats and their dog, who had run upstairs to hide under the bed, the rear deck of the house was aflame.
“At that moment,” Makia remembers, “I ran into the kitchen, grabbed car keys and my wallet, and we ran outside under falling soot and debris and jumped into the car. Our focus was on ourselves and our animals, and as a result all we had was the clothes we were already wearing and nothing else . . . It was almost comical how the next day it snowed.” They drove off with Kat wearing no shoes, socks, or coat.
It took a while for Makia and Kat to recognize how deeply they had already been affected: “During those moments we went from ‘this is normal’ to running on nothing but adrenaline.” As Makia concentrated on driving the household to safety, he realized that his breathing had changed. They decided to stop in a mall parking lot to make sure everyone was alright and decide what to do next: “I got out of our car just as another car had pulled up next to us. I remember seeing them, two normal people having a normal day going to the mall while my face and teeth were covered in soot and two cats were meowing in the back, I said ‘have a nice day!’ and waved as if on auto-pilot.”
Options for Escape
Skinner Myers, his wife, and their children found themselves stuck in traffic. They were inching forward in a line of cars passing a police blockade against a backdrop of flames shooting into the sky, an apocalyptic scene no one wants their kids to experience. To move the young family away from danger while determining their next move, Skinner, who was at the wheel, departed from the suggested evacuation route, managing through trial and error to pick a path north around street closures toward his office in central Boulder.
As a recent transplant from Los Angeles — Skinner is a noted filmmaker, photographer, actor, and assistant professor in film studies at CU-Boulder — he kept thinking about the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, in 2018, where seven people died in their cars following faulty evacuation instructions. “It’s claustrophobic,” he says, “because if the wind shifts, you could be burned up.”
Later while trying to relax at dinner with another evacuated family up north in Fort Collins, Skinner’s friend was asking him to check on their house next time he drove to work. A text arrived: the house was gone. Soon they would learn that they lacked the thousands in savings it would take to access their insurance benefits for rebuilding. Their home, their most important investment, was simply gone. Inadequate policies and under insurance plagued many relying on support from existing systems.
In the following weeks while the Myers family stayed in temporary lodgings in Fort Collins, both children expressed a new preference to sleep in their parents’ room, even though they had their own beds. Every new smell made the whole family nervous, wondering if it was an indication of smoke: “We are now hyper aware of this,” Skinner said. In preparation for future emergencies, they have purchased a four-wheel-drive truck with a large gas tank so that the family can reach safety no matter what.
Evacuees’ stress was compounded by a lack of fine-grained information. Henry Wong, a graduate student originally from Guangzhou, China, said that the information available on the local news was helpful but not very precise. He and his fiancée had no way to determine whether it was accurate. They learned as much from sensory observation during their evacuation from Louisville as they did from the reportage. Flames could jump in any direction at any time, which they already knew from seeing a police car on fire in the middle of a road with nothing else burning around it, and from driving past single houses burning amid developments that were otherwise untouched. In such unpredictable conditions, it’s very difficult to protect oneself and others without robust assistance in place.
For many, the surreal details remain etched in the trauma impacting their nervous systems, regardless of their wealth. For Henry and his partner, the short-term financial impact of staying away from home was a strain on their student budget, especially because they had to sleep in hotels at first due to all of the region’s AirBnB’s filling up. Otherwise, they haven’t suffered much. The only long-term consequence has been a lingering acute awareness: whenever they smell something unusual or see a fire truck, they manage the stress by making nonchalant jokes about the city burning again.
It remains a strange experience to see the badly burned areas, though for others affected less directly the bizarre vistas may have become commonplace. Near Henry’s home there is a driving range where on a pleasant day one can see golfers practicing — right next to an area that burned to nothing and just over the hill from where hundreds of houses were destroyed.
Not all survivors were residents of the neighborhoods that burned. Pasha Ripley lost almost all of her household’s belongings, which during their move had been in storage in Superior in a facility behind Costco. Her genderqueer son was looking forward to joining Eagle Scouts, and she had been saving her father and grandfather’s regalia for him.
Among residents affected more seriously, many report needing long-term mental healthcare assistance that they didn’t require before. Kathe Perez, a Louisville speech pathologist who lost her home, said: “I need all the inner resources—mental, emotional, cognitive—available to me to rebuild my life.” She goes on to say: “Medication helps. . . . At first, I really couldn’t talk. I could only cry, crushing heavy sobs. I was inconsolable. I had difficulty tracking conversations. I had trouble remembering things. I had no capacity to listen to your sadness about my sadness.”
It didn’t have to be this bad. Not only is it past time to quit fossil fuels, better regulate insurance industries, and set up finely tuned alert systems that won’t let people down, but it would have been safer and less traumatic to have robust community-based systems in place.