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With a computer animation of their new house projected on the wide screen at the far end of their architect’s conference room, Alison and Nate Meadows finally allow themselves a moment to breathe.
A few clicks of the mouse and a small loop of the architect’s hand swings into view a 360-degree rendering of the home on Saint Andrews Lane: a two-story modern farmhouse, resplendent in bright white, with a black metal roof and a front porch.
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Sam Rodgers, one of the Meadows’ architects, sits across the conference table. The couple is just one of about 33 new clients, 30 of whom have come from the Coal Creek neighborhood in Louisville, where 134 properties were destroyed in the December 30 Marshall fire. In total, the blaze destroyed just under 1,100 buildings.
More mouse clicks, more rotations. Rodgers watches Alison and Nate carefully. “We’re a little bit like a therapist these days,” Rodgers says before meeting the couple at Asher Architects’ Berthoud office this past March. He nods knowingly when Alison suggests her boys have same-size bedrooms, each with their own bathroom; he smiles when Nate talks about the small wine cellar he wants in the basement.
Alison studies the screen. By next year, the new house will replace the one she’d shared with her husband for the past decade, where they celebrated holidays and neighborhood parties and were raising their sons—Saxon, 12, and Fletcher, seven.
“This is just beautiful, guys,” says Alison, 43, a human resources executive at a vacation rental company in Denver. She turns to her husband, seated next to her. “What do you think, hon?”
“I can definitely see us there,” Nate, 50, says.
Alison looks back at the drawing and tilts her head. There’s one small issue: “I think we need more storage,” she says.
Rodgers runs the mouse’s arrow over the basement layout. Maybe a wall could be moved here? Maybe the space below the stairs could be widened?
Alison and Nate watch Rodgers’ work appear on the screen. It’s easy for the couple to get lost in this daydream of hope, of a new house in the old neighborhood, of the kids once again playing in a backyard overlooking the first hole at Coal Creek Golf Course.
“I think we can get this to how you’d—” Rodgers begins to say.
“Oh, shit,” Alison interrupts. A frown crosses her lips. The room goes silent.
“We don’t have anything to store,” Alison says. “It’s all gone.”
You hear the question on Saint Andrews Lane and at Community Park, in Superior, where children play on a grassy baseball field with edges blackened by flame. You hear it in the rural corners of Boulder County and in suburban enclaves where construction crews drop massive trash bins onto streets, ready to collect the remnants of what has been lost.
Will things ever be the same?
Seth Goldman isn’t sure. It’s March, and he’s standing in front of where his house used to be, just up the hill from where Alison and Nate plan to rebuild. The once, and now future, Goldman plot is further along than most in the neighborhood. A crew will begin cleanup in a few days, ripping down the last pieces of brick and steel, then peeling away the rest of the charred land. Soon, throughout Boulder County, chain-link fences will go up, and the sound of diesel engines will rise into the air, joining a chorus across the landscape, the song of a community in transformation.
Seth and his wife, Nancy, are both 65. They’re retired with adult children. Seth is a former YMCA executive. Nancy, a retired hospital therapist, spent her adult life helping others at their worst moments but now feels like her worst moment will go on forever.
Seth steps into the remains of their home. He scoops up bags of ash from different parts of the house, where he presumes one of the family’s cats, Jinx, had hidden and died. Seth can’t get that cat out of his mind. Nancy isn’t with Seth today. She stays behind at her mother-in-law’s place, their home until they can move into a rental this summer.
“Twenty-five years of our lives, just gone,” Seth says as he stands alone on the sidewalk, imagining the space where his home office had once stood. There’s a burned maple out front, which had grown with the couple’s three children and served for years as the backdrop for first-day-of-school photos. The kids are grown now. The tree is dead. The photos no longer exist.
Seth walks down the street. “How do you rebuild all of this?” he asks.
He once called this the mountaintop, but now it’s a barren mesa. What was a warren of ’90s-era houses and mature trees now offers an unimpeded view of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains.
He stops outside a few neighbors’ houses. It doesn’t seem right to stand on their driveways—“It’s like sacred ground,” he says—so he stays on the road. There’s the family whose fireproof safe proved far less fireproof than originally thought. There’s the neighbor whose house was spared but suffered so much smoke and water damage that it was almost as bad as if it had actually burned down. There’s the charred parcel a few houses from that home, where a wrought-iron railing leads up concrete stairs to nowhere.
In the unincorporated community of Marshall, west of where the Meadows’ and Goldmans’ homes used to stand, two historical buildings are now ash and rubble. One had been an office for a 20th-century mining company; the other had served as housing for miners who once worked the hillsides nearby. They’re both just up the road from where Molly McCray and her family lived.
She’s on her gravel driveway one afternoon in the spring, looking at two chimneys that frame the Flatirons. That’s all that’s left of her childhood home, where she was living with her husband and their two children. A few radiators had collapsed into a pile in what was a crawl space. A wood chipper nearby is charred and holds a melted tire. The chicken coop is a blackened outline in the burned grass. A day after the fire, Molly returned to what was left of her house on South Vale Road and found her rooster by the coop out back. His rear feathers were burned and one foot was slightly frostbitten, but he lived.
Molly and her husband, Ty Taylor, are Army veterans. Every inch of their five acres is like a fingerprint, something that is uniquely theirs. Many of the neighbors were here when Molly was growing up, and her childhood friends often returned, mothers now, just like her. They’d roast marshmallows in the small pit out back and drink wine and laugh and talk about their families and tell stories about one another. In the daylight, an unencumbered carpet of wild grass seemed to stretch all the way west to Boulder. “It was like heaven,” she says.
Behind her burned house, a zip line Molly’s father installed 30 years earlier is singed and sagging on the ground. What remains of a small apple orchard is tucked between a berm and Davidson Ditch, which hides a canal. Molly and her seven-year-old daughter, Viv, called the area the Magical Forest. The pair had spent the year before the fire cataloguing the apple trees there, an undertaking Molly hoped would become a tradition for the two. Molly marked each tree with a different color X—blue, green, black, white—and Viv matched the colors to dates for first blooms, for harvest times, and for the crispness of each tree’s apples. Viv had put her notes in a couple of three-ring binders and stored them in the greenhouse.
The binders are now gone. Molly holds out a hand and touches a burned tree trunk, which is marked with a blue X, still visible, even now. A few melted pieces of plastic mark the former greenhouse. “We’ll get back to this someday,” she says. “I know Viv wants that part of her life again. I probably want it more.”
An arborist had been on the family’s land a few days earlier, making a quick count of the hundred-plus burned trees on the property. The cleanup estimate was $100,000, money Molly and Ty don’t have. Like most people after the fire, they realized how woefully underinsured they were. Molly is determined to rebuild on the land, but exactly what they can afford is up for debate. She and Ty stay up late some nights, talking and worrying about it.
Before the fire, Molly had been working through issues that had developed during more than two decades in the military; she was finally starting to trust that just because something might go wrong didn’t mean it was life-ending. But, in March 2021, there was the mass shooting at the King Soopers where she often shopped, and then flames hit the berm behind her house nine months later.
Molly had just enough time to grab Viv, three-year-old Declan, and their three dogs and three cats and get the hell out. She lost her wedding ring, her Army ribbons, her childhood blankets and dolls, and the framed photos of her father, who died 17 years earlier. Her mother remarried a while back and moved to California; that’s how Molly got the house. “So much of who I am was in this place,” she says, bending over one section of the remnants of her home and pulling out a pile of porcelain doll heads with holes where the eyes had melted.
Across the street from Molly, Jo Easton is lugging tree branches to one side of her flattened house. She’s wearing blue jeans with a hole in the right knee. Her long hair peeks out from a blue bandana.
Jo looks up from her work, walks toward Molly, and gives a little wave. “Just another day in paradise,” she says.
Jo has been in the neighborhood several times each week since the fire, trying to clear what her 68-year-old body will allow. A 50-foot ash tree—limbs broken and blackened nearly halfway up the trunk—stands next to Jo’s collapsed walls.
“There’s got to be a silver lining to all this,” Jo says.
“I don’t know where it is right now,” Molly says.
“Sure is going to be a long year,” Jo says.
Jo’s father-in-law built the home in 1957, a couple of decades before Molly’s parents arrived in the neighborhood. Jo raised four kids here, welcomed her grandkids here. She’d spent nearly her entire adult life on South Vale Road.
As they stand together, Jo and Molly reminisce. Molly tells Jo about her burned rooster and the chainsaw her husband gave her one Valentine’s Day. They talk about tubing in the canal on hot summer days.
The two know every neighbor on their street, and every neighbor has said they are rebuilding. One couple already finished their scrape-off, and a new build will start soon. A 91-year-old neighbor is rebuilding her place, and the woman’s son and his wife plan to move in with her.
Jo misses her orange front door. Her father-in-law carved it and installed it when he built the Eastons’ two-story house. She misses the quiet rituals that made up her morning: coffee with the newspaper, the first glimpse of daylight illuminating the Flatirons.
“I just want my house back,” Jo says. “I want my walls back.”
“There’s not a vestige left,” Jo says. “Oh, well….”
“Oh, well,” Molly says with a little laugh.
“I guess I can finally say that now,” Jo says. “Maybe I kinda mean it.”
A breeze ruffles the needles on the nearby pine trees.
“What do we do, Jo?” Molly finally asks.
“I dunno,” Jo says. “Keep going?”
A destroyed neighborhood is framed by the window in Neil Anderson’s office, a view that makes the Monarch High School principal feel both fortunate and gutted. He begins to explain how months can simultaneously pass like seconds and years.
“There’s not a single person in this community who hasn’t been touched in some way by this fire,” he says. He’s done the grim math for his school. The fire displaced at least 225 of his students and staff, including his own children. The Andersons have spent the past month living in a Boulder rental while their smoke-damaged house in Superior undergoes repairs. The principal helped organize backpack giveaways and a gift-card donation drive for those affected.
“This has been daunting and overwhelming,” Anderson says, “but this is also our life right now, and we can’t run away from it. It’s a weight to carry, but even on our worst days, we have to find a way to gain strength from one another.”
Have you taken time to grieve?
The principal looks toward the floor. He nods instinctively, but then closes his eyes. He shakes his head. “I think…mmmm…you know….” Tears begin to pearl in the corners of his eyes. He pulls off his glasses and reaches for a tissue. “There’s a layer of trauma,” he says, wiping his eyes. “We just need time.”
Upstairs, in the school’s journalism room, the yearbook editors finally feel like they can let go. It’s a special place up here. Dozens of first-place awards—given out at the latest Colorado high school journalism convention—are taped to cabinets along a wall. These are the best of the best among student journalists in the state. These kids see the yearbook and the school newspaper and the television station here as more than classes and clubs. To them, this is a calling.
Five staffers are sitting at a table in April with their adviser, Ben Reed, a week after hitting deadline. There are smiles and laughs. There’s grief and tear-streaked faces and hugs. The work these past few months has been cathartic.
“I feel like we’ve come so far,” the yearbook’s editor-in-chief, 18-year-old Natalie Hunt, says. “This has changed me.”
Hunt returned to Room A208 the week after the fire. Despite losing her house and moving with her parents and sister to an apartment in Broomfield, she was determined to get the yearbook out on time. There’d be the usual stuff: student photos and senior quotes and recaps of high school sports seasons. Then, there’d be the fire. How do you tell this story properly, respectfully? she wondered.
The staff settled on a 10-page section to commemorate their losses. Hunt worked with a team of 11 editors—among them Maya Raulf, a 17-year-old junior who will lead the yearbook staff next year. These days, Raulf is living in an apartment near Broomfield. Nothing remains of her father’s Superior house.
Raulf asked to help lead the fire coverage. She wasn’t interested in focusing solely on those, like her, who’d lost nearly everything. There would be teachers and students and staff whose homes were spared, but who still had to exist in this nightmare. “We needed every perspective, because this is like a time capsule,” Raulf says. “I didn’t want any experiences left out.”
Over the months, the staff pulled together student profiles, photos, and a lead story that spoke about that day. Hunt put a photo of her burning house in a collage on one page. “Mr. Reed says he still can’t read the fire section without crying,” she says, a little proudly. “This is the most important yearbook that’ll ever be created here.”
“This is the book every single person is going to keep,” Reed adds, “and it’s going to mean something.”
It’s impossible to estimate the number of hours the staff has spent in Room A208—the late dinners, getting home at midnight with school the next morning, reading and re-reading stories about loss, about the lives they once had. No one could possibly calculate the staff’s pride when they shipped the book to the printer. “It was just, like…we did it,” Hunt says.
“Every one of you put your whole selves into this,” Reed tells the staff. He points a finger at them. His voice catches. “What you were doing was the most important work, I hope, that you ever do.”
A few seats over, Raulf pulls her arms tight across her body. She buries her chin into her chest. She starts to cry.
Hunt puts a hand on her friend’s shoulder. Reed rubs a tear from his eye.
“You guys put your whole selves into this,” he says again. “I am so proud of you.”
“I have my good days and my bad days,” Nancy Goldman says as she sits in a coffeehouse a mile from her former home in Louisville. Seth’s at a doctor appointment; Nancy’s thinking about their new rental, in South Boulder, which is about ready for them to move into.
Lately, Nancy’s been focusing on the good days. The rental was built in the 1960s with rectangular vegetable gardens out back. She and Seth recently had been furniture shopping in Denver and bought a brown sofa, which Nancy says will look good in the living room.
Between her and Seth, neither can figure out who’s taken the loss harder. Seth’s been the optimistic one of the pair, but Nancy knows her husband has his moments. He badly misses Jinx, their cat. He misses their old couch in the living room, where he sometimes fell asleep after a long day helping Nancy in the garden.
Nancy admits she’s been overly pessimistic, the one who sees Seth’s list of possibilities and imagines all the ways those plans can fall apart. They miss their daughter’s high school dance trophies and the photos that hung above their sweeping staircase. Nancy’s the only person still alive from her father’s side of the family. All those photos are gone. Robbed? The word doesn’t come close.
Their kids are 23, 28, and 32. Nancy and Seth are senior citizens. Nancy has a bum knee. Seth’s going in soon for a minor procedure on his heart. Their new house won’t be finished until late 2023. “You just wonder….” she says. She doesn’t finish her thought.
She can still see the fire, if she allows herself. She can see the flames in the open field across the street. She can see herself and Seth searching for their four cats. She can see them looking for the cat carriers and, not finding them, putting two of the cats into suitcases and holding another one close. Nancy can see herself looking for Jinx, who likely wasn’t interested in experiencing the inside of a Samsonite, but she can’t find him. The clock in her mind is winding down. She sees herself freeze momentarily because she thinks about the kids’ menorahs and the photos of her father.
Neither Seth nor Nancy could find the keys to two of their cars that day. Their son was with them at the house, and he yelled for everyone to jump into his SUV. Nancy threw herself into the back seat and pulled the door closed. That’s how Nancy Goldman left her neighborhood—in the back seat of her son’s vehicle, a suitcase with a cat in it on her lap.
As their son was about to pull away, Seth jumped out of the car. He ran to the front door and locked it. He was sure they’d return soon.
Before the flames popped up on his side of U.S. 36, Nate Meadows was in the process of finishing the final weeks of his job as a vice president for a category-management company and starting new work as a consultant for the food industry. Now, he’s handling most of the day-to-day of the house rebuild on Saint Andrews Lane. The hours and days and weeks are uneven. Alison’s grateful that Nate is taking charge and allowing her to focus on her work. She’s good at reading the shifts in her husband’s mood when she comes home to their rental—the flashes of joy when the architect emails about a revamped drawing, the burst of anger when he announces the microwave oven suddenly doesn’t work.
She prefers not to think too much about the day of the fire, but when the memory creeps into her mind, she zeroes in on the absurd things, like when she told Fletcher to grab a coat and some pants and he returned with three stuffed animals. Or when, after Nate saved the computers and some paper files, he came charging down the steps with a Tupperware bin filled with his favorite baseball cards.
They’re now at their rented dining room table, sitting in their rented chairs, inside their rented Boulder townhome. The boys are upstairs, playing in their rooms. The light gray walls are blank. Nate and Alison can’t imagine hanging anything inside this place. “It’s not ours, you know?” she says.
“This will never be our home,” Nate says.
When the pair return from their architect’s office in mid-March, the two desperately want to show the boys their new house. They also want to be careful about how they present things. Neither of their kids seems to want to talk about how quickly they had to leave their home or what they hope might be better about the new one. Alison and Nate worry how the boys might react to the drawings, to the realization that, no matter how badly everyone wants things to return to how they once were, that is never going to happen. The boys will never have their old rooms or their old basement, where they kicked soccer balls and played video games.
Nate rolls out the architectural drawings on the dining room table and calls for Fletcher and Saxon. When their sons come downstairs, Nate and Alison show them the new basement. They point out the boys’ new bedrooms. The rooms are exactly the same size, Alison assures them. These will be your bathrooms. Doesn’t the kitchen look great? How about this back patio?
The boys look at the drawings and listen to their parents. There is talk of a pizza oven. Fletcher and Saxon say it sounds cool to them, and then they go back upstairs to play.
“Kids,” Nate says.
“I’ll take that as a win,” Alison says.
They look at each other, and, after a brief moment, they both laugh.