BOULDER, Colo. — There is an asphalt line that joins this city’s two recent tragedies, binds them in an awful coincidence that will forever shape life here.
The past year has injected a sense of unnerving randomness to a city that prides itself on a self-confident graciousness and compassionate politics. Not immune from natural disasters or crime, Boulder and its southern suburbs nonetheless have found a new challenge rooted in uncertainty and shared pain after twin calamities, one the result of a gun the city tried to ban and another the product of a fast-changing climate.
The challenges ahead are daunting, namely how to replace 1,000 or so destroyed homes in a housing market that is pinched and pricey. Even where to build and what materials to use are being rethought by Colorado officials, who, in the words of Boulder’s mayor, are working in “the new world of climate change and reexamining neighborhoods that no one ever thought would burn.”
“It’s been an incredibly difficult year, and these events have been layered upon the pandemic that everyone has been experiencing,” Mayor Aaron Brockett said. “The King Soopers shooting shook us to the core, and that took place within a mile or two from where the fire started. The thing that gets us all through it is coming together to help each other.”
The Marshall Fire started the day before New Year’s Eve on the grassy plains south of Boulder, burning hot and fast with hurricane-force winds pushing it toward suburbs never before at risk from fire. More than 30,000 people were evacuated along traffic-filled suburban streets, many named for songbirds, passing as they fled an elementary school named Fireside in a cruel reminder these neighborhoods were never meant to burn.
“Happy Holidays,” the sign on the school’s marquee still reads.
There are few trees in Louisville (pronounced Lewisville) and Superior, a sharp contrast from the towns that burn in California, some built deep into dry forests and up sere hillsides. But, like much of the West, Colorado is suffering through a deep drought, and at the time the fire sparked, for reasons still under investigation, no measurable amount of snow had fallen in this Rocky Mountain town in the shadow of the sheer, now snow-tipped Flatirons.
“We can see some real basic elements at play,” said Maxwell Boykoff, a professor and chairman of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s environmental studies department. “There have been warnings for years of these low-probability, high-consequence events and now we see they are becoming much more frequent.”
Boykoff talked about the “basic ingredients” that made the plains around Boulder primed for fire, the same wet springs, dry winters that have made much of the American West far more susceptible to burns in recent years.
Four of Colorado’s five largest wildfires have occurred since 2018. This one burned about 1,000 homes and more than 100 businesses, a Target, movie theaters, strip malls and family-owned restaurants, making it the worst in state history and, like the King Soopers shooting, raising again the question of where safety here is assured anymore.
“Going forward there are materials that can be used for building that are less flammable and that’s what we have to think about,” Boykoff said. “But there is this path dependency on what we have done that we still rely on. What’s critically important is that we integrate the lessons we have learned and not just let them pass by.”
The snow began falling as Louisville and Superior burned, another climate oddity that has complicated the investigation into the cause and the search for two people who remain missing. Homes still smolder, revealing “hot spots” that fire crews have yet to fully extinguish. On Tuesday, the return of high winds alarmed fire officials, who worried that fanning embers in the neighborhoods could again spark flames.
Rex and Barba Hickman have lived for 23 years along West Mulberry Street in Louisville. The couple, famous for their Christmas decorations — more than 30,000 red lights strung from a choke cherry tree in their front yard — had just completed a renovation that added a cabin-style space in the back of the house that quickly became a place for friends to gather and have a glass of wine.
The house is a black pit now. Rex, a retired financial adviser, picked through the remains of a safe on a chilly, but sunny afternoon, finding with good humor a few melted gold coins and the ashes of passports and deeds and other documents.
“It was the most beautiful house in the world,” Barba said, a place where they raised two kids.
The fire swept up so quickly the couple looked outside after a police warning and could hardly see the sky. They put on ski goggles to protect against the ashes and embers and shuttled to the car with what they could gather in a few short, frightening minutes.
“The winds were so strong the firefighters just couldn’t keep up,” Barba said. “We couldn’t see anything, not even the fire itself.”
The flames tore down Mulberry, destroying homes along Vista Lane and Tanager and Warbler courts. The Hickmans are without a home indefinitely even as they plan, Barba says, “to rebuild right here again.”
“That’s the challenge we’re going to be dealing with over the next two years, and that really is the timeline we’re looking at to rebuild,” Brockett, the mayor, said. “We need this interim housing and we’re going to have to get creative.”
Housing stock in Boulder and the greater Denver area is low and prices are high. Boulder County grew more than 12 percent over the past decade, according to the 2020 Census, helping drive up the median home price in the city by 13 percent to nearly $900,000.
Nearby Denver’s expansion has been even more striking. The city grew by more than 20 percent over the past decade, adding nearly 120,000 new residents. Denver home prices have jumped more than 20 percent over the past year.
“This isn’t going to be easy, but we’re going to find places for these folks,” Brockett said. “We really want to find places for folks to live their normal lives as much as possible and that means living as close to where they lived before, living close to their schools.”
Federal emergency officials have begun passing out housing vouchers and cash cards, and Boulder County has opened a one-stop shelter for services and beds for those who have lost everything. Even public officials are reeling a bit from the past year.
“The Boulder King Soopers — that’s the first grocery store you come to from the neighborhoods that burned,” said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), a Boulder native. “There’s this air of unreality about it still, just still so hard to believe that happened and now there’s this connection.”
Polis has been present here since the fires, delivering a hopeful, look-ahead message with a barely disguised face full of grief. He is not a flashy leader, preferring to have the experts deliver the information, and he is preoccupied by the chain of events around the fire. He cites fire burn statistics of recent years off the top of his head, including the 600,000 acres of Colorado wildland that burned in 2020.
“This was just 6,000 acres,” Polis said of the Marshall Fire. “But far more buildings were destroyed and lives upturned because of the density of this being in an urban and suburban area.
“So this is very different from the devastating fires that burned so much land,” he added. “This was residential and just hours before people began celebrating New Year’s Eve.”
Then there are those who were spared, their homes intact, standing next to a neighbor’s ruins. A quixotic wind drives flames along odd courses, here and across the West, so cruel luck, along with skilled firefighting, can often mean the difference between a spared home and homelessness.
Chris Raker moved into 145 Tanager Ct. six weeks ago with a roommate. He is 31 and works as a quality assurance officer for a food company.
The wind started on Thursday morning, then the smoke poured down Mulberry and the side street he lives on. Gusts were picking up patio furniture, hurling tables and chairs across the street and down the road. Looking out his window, he saw a family at the end of the street packing a car and leaving, as embers began raining down into his yard.
“So we left, too,” Raker said. They piled into his Hyundai coupe and left for his roommate’s sister’s house, where they watched the fire move down their street on an iPhone connected to their Ring doorbell camera.
“You’d think a small grass fire, no problem,” Raker said. “But it was the wind.”
His house was spared. At least four homes on a patch of land between Tanager and Warbler courts burned all the way through the basements, cars stuck inside garages, brick chimneys standing sentry, the ubiquitous, eerie landmarks of the West’s post-fire landscapes.
Fire hoses melted in the streets. Ornaments hung from oak and cottonwood trees remained hanging on charred branches, some melted into distorted shapes. Smoke from various ruins rose from pockets where a living room or kitchen once stood, hot spots that fire officials continue to monitor and douse.
One house on Warbler Court was still framed in sky blue-painted wood, the opening to a garage. All else was black.
Theima Sandvan lives next door, an original owner in a subdivision built 35 years ago. Her home was spared, she said, by the heroics of three neighbors who hosed down her house and those around it, keeping the embers off.
“We’re going to have a huge block party when this all opens up again,” Sandvan said. “But for now I have survivor’s guilt.”