Just before 11:30 a.m. Thursday, emergency dispatchers alerted firefighters to a grassfire reported near Marshall Road and Colorado 93 south of Boulder.
The hurricane-force winds buffeting Boulder County meant it already had been a busy morning, with fire crews racing to stop two other grassfires north of the city limits.
But the new fire near Marshall Road would prove to be a different beast. Powerful winds pushed the flames east and it exploded within minutes, sending a column of smoke skyward as it burned across parched grassland toward the suburban subdivisions of Superior.
Tens of thousands of Boulder County residents fled that afternoon and evening as the entire town of Superior, then its neighbor across U.S. 36, the city of Louisville, were ordered to evacuate. The firestorm, accelerated by vicious winds and drought conditions, tore through Superior, jumped the turnpike and burned into Louisville.
By late Thursday, the Marshall fire had burned 6,000 acres and destroyed nearly 1,000 homes and businesses to become the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. The flames leveled a hotel in Superior and scorched the roof of the town’s Target store. In Louisville, the wildfire blackened shops in strip malls along McCaslin Boulevard.
Despite officials’ earlier optimism that no lives had been lost, three people were missing and feared dead as of Saturday.
Residents who lost everything scrounged through the rubble of their homes Friday, on the last day of a trying year, with COVID-19 rates climbing once again and Denver and Lakewood still mourning the victims of a terrifying mass shooting. Others, still blocked from returning to their neighborhoods because of active fires, were left wondering whether their homes were still standing
The Denver Post spoke to some of these residents as they headed into the New Year picking through the remains of the lives they had built, and these are their stories.
A tear spilled down Samantha Pinto’s face as she stood on the sidewalk along West Dillon Road in Louisville on Friday morning, staring at what once was her family’s neighborhood.
It’s the place where she and friends played hide-and-seek at night, pretended to be “America’s Top Model” and invented “The Blanket Game,” which was carried out on a trampoline.
“My childhood is gone,” Pinto, 26, said.
The Pinto family — Randy, Lynne, Melanie and Samantha — moved into their home in Coal Creek Ranch South in 2004. There, they made the kind of friends who organized softball teams and borrowed tools and invited each other onto their decks for evening cocktails.
Now, an estimated 60 homes in their subdivision are gone.
“All of my friends used to meet at an electrical box. We’d say, ‘Let’s meet at the electrical box’ to play,” Samantha Pinto said. “All of my best friends grew up in this same cul-de-sac.”
Randy Pinto, a family medicine doctor whose office is near Avista Adventist Hospital, finished seeing his Thursday morning patients and looked out his office window to watch smoke billowing. He wondered why his wife, Lynne, was not bringing the sandwich he had requested for lunch.
“I just thought it was a typical wildfire that happens up in the foothills and it wouldn’t come down here,” he said.
Lynne and her daughters were too busy packing valuables and planning to evacuate to bring lunch. The family managed to save their cat Moonshine, along with some records, artwork, passports and other important documents.
“These guys were good,” Randy Pinto said. “They were hauling butt.”
Preparing for the worst
Katie Doyle Myers found herself in an uneasy state of in-between late Thursday morning, as winds near her Louisville home began to roar and smoke started to drift overhead. Her two kids were eating lunch with two neighborhood friends at their home on Grouse Court.
She encouraged the kids to continue eating, but to do so with some urgency. Texts from friends were coming in with an increasing edge in tone. Some told her she should evacuate.
“You could look northeast and see blue sky — I thought, ‘Do we really have to do this?’” Doyle Myers said.
When her youngest child asked her if their house would be OK, she tried to assure him by telling him that thousands of houses to the west would have to burn first before the fire reached their neighborhood just east of the Louisville Recreation Center. Impossible, right?
“Is this really going to happen in our suburban town?” Doyle Myers asked herself. “We’re not in the mountains.”
But as the winds picked up speed and the skies grew darker with smoke, she knew it was time to go. She grabbed some crucial documents, the family dog, their two hermit crabs and the neighbor’s cat. She pulled away from her house of 17 years not knowing if she would see it standing again.
“When I got really scared was when I saw how much gridlock there was on the road,” Doyle Myers said. “It was this unbelievable billowing orange smoke and this ash falling on us.”
At that moment, her friend texted her telling her she could see half a dozen fires breaking out on the side of Dillon Road as she sat stuck in traffic. Doyle Myers saw motorists turn a bike path through open space property into a makeshift road, as they bailed on jammed-up South Boulder Road to get to Baseline Road.
She followed and ended up in Longmont at her place of work, where she and her family spent the night. Her husband snuck back to the house a few hours later to grab some medicine and returned with sobering news.
“He came back and said, ‘Let’s prepare ourselves emotionally,’” she said. “We were preparing to lose our house.”
But on Friday, Doyle Myers herself was able to drive to her home to see if it was still standing. It was, along with her neighbors’ homes on the cul-de-sac — even while houses and condos on nearby West Mulberry Street and Owl Drive had burned to the ground.
“A block away there was nothing,” she said. “It felt super desolate.”
Though Doyle Myers doesn’t know when she and her family will be able to return home, she said she’s ready to help neighbors who weren’t so lucky.
“We have a tiny house but absolutely we’ll take people in,” she said. “Louisville has a special something to it.”
A long road ahead
Where a six-bedroom, 3,780-square-foot home once stood at 84 Spy Glass Circle, just one recognizable object could be seen in a heap of smoldering cinders Friday: a Big Green Egg Smoker.
“The Green Egg survived,” Doug Johnson said as he stood in his driveway watching the smoke billow. “It’s not green anymore.”
Johnson and his wife Laurie Draper moved into the custom-built home in 1994. Today, they would not be able to afford it, Draper said.
The couple was at home with their 30-year-old son Lucas Johnson and their German shepherd Zia when they heard they needed to evacuate. They scrambled to load belongings — including their Persian rugs and frozen food — into their cars. At Lucas Johnson’s suggestion, they took time to pile stuff into a third vehicle even though Doug Johnson didn’t think the fire would be all that bad.
“You leave thinking the best — that you will return,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, Draper second-guessed their hurried decisions made while frantically packing. She had saved Christmas stockings and a hand-made tree skirt.
But she didn’t bring much that had belonged to her mother, who died three years ago, or the beautiful angora sweaters that her sister had knitted by hand.
“I didn’t grab any of the right stuff,” she said. “I didn’t grab any of my mother’s stuff.”
As Johnson and Draper watched the ashes smolder, the Pinto family walked over to console their friends. As they hugged in the street, Draper said, “It’s going to be a long road ahead.”
15 minutes to get out
Talis Ozols went to Davidson Mesa near Harper Lake in Louisville on Thursday afternoon to take pictures of a wildfire burning outside of town.
The flames hopped U.S. 36, and he got worried in a hurry.
“It realized it was windy enough that it might actually reach us,” Ozols said. “We’d talked about it happening but we didn’t think it was possible.”
He raced home. He and roommate Bryan DiLaura packed and left within 15 minutes.
On Friday, their cluster of townhomes was gone. A few buildings nearby were partially burned while others appeared untouched by the blaze.
Ozols peered into a pit that had served as the basement of his townhouse at 452 Owl Drive. He recognized his toolbox, now a rusted hunk of metal, and the washer and dryer. That was about it.
As he contemplated the mess, his roommate Bryan DiLaura walked up.
“Jesus Christ,” DiLaura said as tears welled in his eyes. “It’s all gone.”
The roommates gently kicked two flower pots that sat by what had once been their front door. They talked about the things they wished they’d remembered to take as they evacuated.
“When I got to my parents it was so stupid,” DiLaura said. “OK, I got my skis and a couple of days’ worth of clothes.”
The men snapped pictures at the scene to document it for insurance claims.
“I don’t think we’re going to salvage anything at all,” DiLaura said.
An economic calamity
The Muckle brothers led Superior and Louisville as the communities’ respective mayors nearly a decade ago. Andrew Muckle, a physician who has lived in Superior for 25 years, said he was working at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette when he got an evacuation alert Thursday.
He raced back to his home in the Rock Creek neighborhood and grabbed his two dogs before starting the interminable journey — it took one hour to move one mile — out of the neighborhood down Rock Creek Parkway.
“Honestly, it was a little nerve-wracking,” he said, as he watched smoke billowing over the tops of his neighbors’ homes.
Muckle’s home survived, though he and his family are staying with his mother in Boulder while the evacuation order is in place. He said his brother’s home in Louisville was also spared the fire’s ferocity.
Muckle said there had been talk, nearly 10 years ago when he was mayor, about the possibility of a grassland fire on the expansive stretch of open space that lines the west side of town. But he and others never envisioned it jumping roads and other barriers, aided by hurricane-strength winds.
“You’d have McCaslin Boulevard and a buffer between McCaslin and houses,” he said. “I think people were comfortable with protection from wildfire on open space.”
But when it moved further north and east into Louisville on Thursday, he realized the extraordinary — and unprecedented — power of the Marshall fire.
“Honestly, I could see how Superior might get affected, but when I saw Louisville burn, it was hard to believe,” Muckle said.
The former mayor, who served in that role between 2006 and 2014, said he worries about Superior’s fiscal soundness going forward. With reports of damage at the Superior Marketplace, where the small town gets the bulk of its sales tax revenues, Muckle said the immediate future could be rocky.
“If these businesses — Target, Costco and Whole Foods — if they are unable to open for an extended period of time, that would be an economic calamity for the town,” he said.
Digging through rubble
When 18-year-old Anna Gracheva pulled up to the Louisville home she had spent her life in only to find it burned to the ground Friday morning, a reel of memories flashed before her eyes.
Hanging out in the backyard on warm summer evenings. Making coffee in the kitchen. Filling the rooms of the two-story home plus basement with the lively conversation of a loving family — herself, Mom, Dad and brother.
By Friday, all that remained was rubble and whatever Gracheva could pull from the ashes.
So far, she had found a mug from a beloved friend, a water bottle and some china.
“Words can’t describe what’s happened here,” Gracheva said. “It’s unimaginable.”
The teen had a stressful day Thursday before the Marshall fire sparked. Gracheva woke up at 6:30 a.m. to take a COVID-19 test. Then her car battery died. After a jumpstart, Gracheva was driving home when a dark haze started to settle over Boulder County, she said.
The family heard about the fires but never thought they’d be impacted.
“It all happened so fast,” Gracheva said.
She began to pack a bag in case she needed to evacuate: one change of clothing, her phone and chargers, a toothbrush, toothpaste and deodorant.
“That was it,” Gracheva said. “I just thought, of course, we would come back and it would be OK.”
Gracheva got increasingly anxious as reports of the fires rolled in and headed out to a friend’s house while her parents stayed behind a bit longer before taking off to a friend’s house with the family dogs and cat.
She and her brother came back to the residence Friday to see how their childhood home fared, only to find its charred remains next to a basketball hoop. The siblings started digging through the rubble for keepsakes — any comforts of home they could bring into the New Year.
“My heart goes out to everyone during this time,” Gracheva said.
Mourning a beloved pet
The Mayfield family cut short their trip to visit relatives in Manhattan, Kansas, and returned to Louisville to find their house in the Cherrywood 2 subdivision completely burned down.
Adding to their anguish, their 2-year-old dog Lucky was inside.
“It was a very sad thing in our family,” Doug Mayfield said.
His 11-year-olds twins are especially struggling. The Mayfields left their dog behind because their hotel wouldn’t allow him. Their pet sitter had walked the dog around noon on Thursday but left before hearing about evacuation orders.
When the orders were issued, the sitter couldn’t get back to the house because of a closure on U.S. 36.
“We couldn’t do anything about it,” he said. “Everybody was evacuated. We didn’t even know about it. Our sitter couldn’t even come back.”
They returned to see smoking debris where their house once stood. Mayfield said it looked like “a bomb had gone off inside the house.”
The car inside the garage appeared to have blown up. A storage shed melted “all the way into nothingness.”
The Mayfield family is holding onto a sliver of hope that their dog somehow escaped the fire, and they plan to check the lists of animals that have been found. But they know the house was secured at the time of the fire.
“We were hoping he was lucky,” Mayfield said. “We were hoping he got through a door or something.”
Never in a million years
To Stan Lanzano, it looked like a tornado of fire had torn through Louisville, carving a path of linear destruction in the city of 20,000 while leaving adjacent streets untouched.
“The band of destruction was like half a mile wide and right outside of it, you were fine,” Lanzano said.
Unfortunately for the 48-year-old Realtor and 15-year Louisville resident, his home was in the Marshall fire’s target zone.
“It ripped right down West Mulberry Street,” he said. “I didn’t even know it was our house — there was not one defining feature to tell us that it was our house.”
He had somehow convinced himself that he would be able to quickly run upstairs and grab some cash he had left in a drawer upon returning to his home Friday morning. But there was no drawer, no stairs to climb. His incinerated, unrecognizable Acura RDX was “just a blob.”
“Never in a million years would I think a raging wildlife would rip down a suburban neighborhood in Louisville,” Lanzano said.
Which is why he didn’t take the evacuation orders — in the form of a fire truck driving down West Mulberry telling people via loudspeaker to get out — as seriously as he wished he had. Figuring he’d be back home in a number of hours, he grabbed only a toothbrush as he and his wife and two children joined lines of cars heading out of town.
“Our expectation was they were evacuating out of an abundance of caution,” Lanzano said. “The thought never occurred to us that our house would be completely destroyed.”
They ended up at his sister’s house in Broomfield on Thursday evening.
Lanzano turned off his phone for the night, only to pick up the voicemail the next morning from a neighbor EMT informing him: “West Mulberry’s all gone.”
But already neighbors and friends are offering help — one friend told him he could have some of his climbing equipment to replace what had been burned up. Another friend offered to give him children’s clothing to dress his kids.
“It’s been very reassuring — there is a very strong sense of community,” Lanzano said.
Mitchell Byars of the Boulder Daily Camera contributed to this report.
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