Marshall fire survivors rely on kindness, generosity, therapy as they recover from trauma
Lacey Porter sees the smiles and hears the praise from family and friends when they talk about how well she handled the Marshall fire and coped with losing everything but her dog Addie.
Even Porter thought she was doing well in the months after the Boulder County wildfire, which killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes one year ago Friday. She seemed to handle a family death, a career change and an expensive vet bill for Addie.
Porter bought herself a 2007 Nissa Xterra with some of the financial support she received, and that four-wheel-drive vehicle was her escape. She drove it on camping and ski trips across Colorado. When things felt heavy, she went for a ride.
“It became the sign of peace for me,” Porter said. “Every time I drove that car it just felt good. I’ve never been one to connect emotionally to items, especially cars.”
Then, on Dec. 16, while driving to a Christmas dinner with her boyfriend, a collision on U.S. 36 crumpled the Xterra’s left wheel well. No one was hurt.
But Porter can’t quit crying over the Xterra, and she said she doesn’t understand the emotions that flooded her mind after the wreck.
“I’m trying to figure that out. I’ve always been a super happy-go-lucky person in my life. I’ve always bounced back so fast,” she told The Denver Post, recounting the story of the car wreck amid tears. “I was constantly shoving all those things into a box. And then when this happened I just snapped. I cry a lot, which is a bummer. It was just the latest loss I’ve faced this year.”
While the Dec. 30, 2021, wildfire left a smoldering, blackened path through parts of Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, it also etched an invisible scar — one that sits in the hearts and minds of the people who lived through it.
As the one-year anniversary of Colorado’s most destructive wildfire approached, survivors have shared feelings of anger, grief and fear that it could happen again. They also continue to navigate a long slog toward rebuilding that can be frustrating and test the patience of almost anyone.
“Anniversaries are challenging,” said Avani Dilger, a trauma therapist who founded Natural Highs, a nonprofit organization in Boulder, to help people cope with tragedy.
When Boulder County issued an evacuation order on Dec. 19 for nearly 1,000 people after a 16-acre wildfire erupted in Sunshine Canyon, many people were surprised by how it triggered such raw emotions. They posted comments in a Marshall fire community group on Facebook about panic attacks, stepping away from work, packing boxes, the strong wind and the smokey odor.
“Out of nowhere I saw this on the news at work and suddenly couldn’t breathe. Full panic mode. I’m still shaking,” one woman wrote.
Those feelings are to be expected, trauma experts say.
Signs of trauma include anxiety, sleep problems, irritability, being hyper-vigilant, trouble concentrating and not being able to relax.
Trauma is a natural human response, Dilger said, so those behaviors are expected. But problems — such as alcohol and drug addiction — evolve when people fail to address it.
“The big thing is people need to get support,” she said. “People need to connect. The worse thing for trauma is isolation.”
Kristen Forrest, left, wipes away a tear sitting next to her daughter, Ava, 10, at an Interfaith Service of Support and Healing on the eve on the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire at the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church Dec. 29, 2022, in Boulder. Forrest's condo that she was living in was heavily damaged in the fire and she was forced to relocate to area hotels after the fire, but has since returned to the condo. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Rev. Anne Richter speaks during an Interfaith Service of Support and Healing on the eve on the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire at the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church Dec. 29, 2022, in Boulder. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Venerable JianQi, left, and Venerable JianMin, right, Great Dharma Chan Monastery of Boulder chant and give words of hope and peace during an Interfaith Service of Support and Healing on the eve on the one-year anniversary of the Marshall fire at the St. Ambrose Episcopal Church Dec. 29, 2022, in Boulder. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)
Laughter and tears
Melissa Lockman, whose family home in Louisville was destroyed in the fire, allowed her 11-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son plenty of time with friends during the past year.
Two months after the fire, she heard her son Zachary discussing a lost toy with a friend while they were playing. The friend said he’d had one, too, but, “It burned.” And the boys started laughing.
“Somehow, it was making sense to them,” Lockman said. “I feel really glad to be able to recognize and let them be where they’re at.”
The year has held its share of tears, too.
On the day of the fire, the Lockman family already had planned to spend the New Year’s weekend in Winter Park. Their bags were packed, and when they saw smoke billowing from a grass fire, they decided to leave early.
However, they didn’t gather any valuables. The only unexpected additions to the trip were two guinea pigs their daughter insisted on bringing at the last minute because she was worried about the fire.
“Thank goodness for strong daughters,” Lockman said.
That night in Winter Park, the Lockmans realized their house was gone. Lockman and her husband Mark sat down with their children and explained their loss to the kids. There was lots of “crying and wailing,” she said.
The whole family slept in the same bed, with the parents holding back tears as they listened to their children cry themselves to sleep.
“It wasn’t our time to cry,” Lockman said. “It was our time to be the container.”
But Lockman’s emotions came.
After the fire, she insisted on going to their burned lot and sorting through the rubble.
“I wanted to go sift through those goddamn ashes over and over and over again,” she said. “I wasn’t even looking for anything. I didn’t have a grandma’s ring or anything like that. I just needed to sit in those ashes and see what came.”
Mark Lockman was the opposite.
“My husband is full steam ahead and doesn’t linger in it,” she said. “One thing I know that sort of came through so clearly in our family is that just everybody grieves differently. Everybody is just going to feel this differently.”
As much as people tried to move past missing objects, it has been hard to let go. Multiple people interviewed by The Post said they do not see themselves as materialistic, but grieved things like bed frames, jewelry, handmade blankets and fishing rods.
Lockman said she missed her wedding dress and that her daughter Zora especially missed blankets that had been handmade by her grandmothers.
“Part of the uniqueness of the human animal is we are meaning-makers,” Lockman said. “There was meaning in those blankets for Zora and there was meaning in that wedding dress that was handmade by my auntie. I think the things people have lost is deeply sad.”
Adriane Hirsch cried during an interview when talking about jewelry that she had hoped to pass down to her 19-year-old daughter Lili. The jewelry wasn’t fancy, but she enjoyed showing the pieces to her daughter and telling stories about where she got them and when she wore them.
“It wasn’t expensive. It was just stuff from different parts of my life and travels,” Hirsch said. “I was going to give all of that to her.
“I don’t feel bad for myself,” she said. “I feel bad for my children.”
Hirsch is divorced and rented a house in Superior. Her ex-husband owned a house in Louisville. Both properties were destroyed, meaning her children lost everything inside two homes.
Hirsch said her relationship with physical items has ebbed and flowed since the fire.
When her landlord sent a text saying everything was gone, “Your heart just sinks. You just kind of feel untethered,” she said.
“You have this thing where you can’t even imagine. And you think, ‘I just worked my entire (expletive) life for nothing.’”
Hirsch said the irony is that she owns a business called Heritage Handlers that helps older adults downsize and plan moves into smaller homes or assisted living. She counsels them on letting go of belongings, and now she’s applying that same advice to herself.
“I like to say I was violently downsized whether I like it or not,” she said.
She describes a numbness when it comes to buying things. She questions whether anything is necessary.
“I find myself just walking around kind of dazed and confused in different stores, like not quite knowing what to buy or why or should I?” she said. “I’m kind of indecisive.”
For Jim Curfman, outdoor activities bring escape. At 73, he still skis, bicycles and golfs.
But he feels guilty when he heads outside and leaves his wife Sandy to figure out insurance and rebuilding costs for their new home in Superior.
Sandy Curfman worked as an office manager for a homebuilder and a Realtor before she retired. She has a good business mind, he said, so it makes sense she oversees that end of the rebuilding.
“I’m the one who goes and plays golf to get my brain squared away. And she’s the one who makes sure the numbers are squared away with the insurance,” he said. “There are times she gets frustrated — and rightfully so. She feels like she gets left behind. She’s right. There’s no excuse for it.”
He tries to oversee the construction of their new home but feels it’s outside of his realm of expertise. He worked as a construction manager, but his projects were in the transportation sector — highways, bridges, light rail — and not residential homes.
“Really, I’m more in the way than anything else, and that bugs me,” he said. “I think of myself as being competent but I feel I’m getting in people’s way.”
Curfman said he feels like his situation is so much better than so many other Marshall fire families. They didn’t have school-aged children at home to worry about. They have a second home in Vail to visit. They’re not battling their insurance company. Framing on their new house is almost finished.
But he finds himself lacking patience sometimes. He recalled a recent encounter with a neighbor who was offering unsolicited advice and it made him angry. “I found myself short with him,” he said.
Curfman talks to male friends who lost homes, but no one addresses the depression or anxiety caused by the fire, he said. He’s found himself crying over it.
“Let’s face it, we have periods of time in our lives where things are going along well and you think, ‘My life is pretty nice.’ I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” he said.
But, “There’s always something in the back of my head that is not right. It’s not overwhelming, but it’s gnawing. I feel like if I don’t deal with it it’s going to boil over. And you don’t know what to do about it.’
Curfman leans on his wife, his dog Charlie and the outdoors to cope.
“If I didn’t have the partnership with my wife, if I didn’t have the partnership with my dog, if I didn’t have the ability to get out and do the things I do, I don’t know how I would deal with it,” he said.
In the weeks after the fire, Lisa Hall, a licensed marriage and family counselor who lives in Louisville, realized her neighbors and friends were suffering. She watched them lose weight. She could see the dazed looks in their eyes and knew they were having trouble making even the simplest decisions.
Hall gathered some colleagues and staged an intervention for about 40 people at her home. She lured them at first with the opportunity to discuss rebuilding with her husband, who is a contractor. The second time she invited them over, Hall held a conversation about how the brain and body respond to trauma and then offered brain-spotting, an alternative therapy that uses sound and visual stimulation to release trauma. They also used ear acupuncture to ease stress.
For the most part, it was appreciated.
The adult friends then asked if she would set up a session for their children. So she organized a group therapy event for about 60 young people at the Louisville Recreation Center.
“When people come together in a community it is very powerful,” she said.
Marshall fire families are offered ongoing mental health support through Mental Health Partners, Jewish Family Services, Boulder Community Foundation and the Boulder Valley School District. The community has organized group therapy, yoga and community walks to help.
Over and over, people who survived the fire talk about the kindness and generosity of the community. People donated hundreds of thousands of dollars, gave away food and clothes, and offered tickets to sporting events, plays and concerts to their neighbors.
“I absolutely couldn’t have gotten through it without people being so kind and so generous,” Hirsch said.
After her crash, Porter turned to the Marshall fire community Facebook page to talk about her wrecked car. She wanted to connect with people who would understand why she reacted so deeply to it.
“This triggered a huge reaction in me, it resurfaced the events of last year, the feeling of loss and financial insecurity,” she wrote. “I keep getting told that it’s just a car, and it’s so hard with people who don’t understand. It feels like I lost my home again.”
More than a dozen people responded to offer encouragement and advice, and to let her know they understand exactly how she feels. Taking their suggestions, she created a GoFundMe campaign to get financial help to fix or replace the car.
She also scheduled a free therapy session through Jewish Family Services, which is offering 10 free counseling sessions to every person who survived the fire.
“Feeling like this and not knowing why I feel like this is hard,” Porter said. “I don’t know if it’s the fire or not. I can’t explain it. It’s weird.
“That was the moment I realized I can’t do it alone.”
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