What It Was Like To Flee The Colorado Wildfires With Only Minutes To Spare

Photo: Photo: Shutterstock / Gabe Shakour
Colorado Wildfire Lessons

It started like any other Thursday at home. The wind was a bit heavier than usual, maybe. I looked forward to working through my online sessions and to a night of celebration on New Year's Eve.

Then ... everything went to Hell. What might have been a routine workday became a fiery nightmare. It was Dec. 30, 2021, the day our slice of Colorado burned in the most destructive wildfires in the state's history. More than 1,000 homes and businesses were destroyed by the Marshall Fire.

What might have been just another day now stands out for its horror — and for the lessons I learned about how people respond to tragic circumstances with kindness, compassion, empathy and resilience. 

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Our community of Superior and Louisville, a quiet suburb outside of Boulder, CO was ravaged by these wildfires.

They caused unprecedented damage and trauma.

The memories that flood back to me now include looking out my window seeing the black smoke — it was everywhere — and realizing how much closer it was than I would have thought.

A client from a nearby town said they were under evacuation orders. When we turned on the news, we realized we had to get out very quickly.

My mind froze when I tried to think about what I should take with me from my home. But I knew I had to move.

I remember panicking a little about the cats. The cats would need to be coerced into their carriers, something they despise. But what if they refused? How would we transport them to safety?

Once we got going, traffic ground to a halt. The entire town tried to evacuate at the same time. The encroaching fire loomed over the ridge of our hometown.

I think I speak for most of the members of my town when I tell you that watching the news that evening as our town and homes were in flames was a surreal, crushing experience.

We felt helpless, unable to do a thing as we saw more and more flames go higher into the sky, not sure what would remain — if anything. I had to fight that strong desire to return to my town and do something, if only to be closer.

Of course, we knew that being closer to the fires would only make the firefighters' job more difficult as they tried to save as many homes as they could from the fire. 

Living in an open space, I knew there was a chance my home would succumb to fire. I tried to make peace and accept that I may return to cinders, rather than my home.  

The day after the fire left an indelible impression in my memory. 

Returning to my home after the snow arrived to cover the ashes with much-needed moisture was a heart-wrenching experience.

Familiar homes had burned to the ground, with only bits of concrete left where a family once lived days earlier. Military trucks blocked the streets to protect what was left from looters and people curious to see the destruction.

We breathed the fumes that rose in noxious tendrils from the destroyed homes.

My home survived.

I was left with this terrible feeling of why was I so lucky?

Why did my house remain? What about all the people who came home to their razed streets, homes and charred trees with nothing but cinders and concrete remains?

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Despite the sadness, the loss and the shared horror, I've been amazed and graced with blessings.

What still brings me to tears when I reflect on that first week after the fire was how everyone came together to support and care for one another. 

The outpouring of support from friends and neighbors, people I had not heard from in years, was incredible.

People checked in to see what they could do to help. Just hearing their shock and sense of helplessness was comforting in an odd way, despite no one really being able to do anything.

Thinking about the first responders who worked through the nights and weeks following the fires to secure our town still brings me to tears.

I'm forever grateful for the volunteers who donated their time to give back, such as handing out space heaters to the homeowners without heat.  

I'm thankful, also, for the tireless gas line employees who worked to close off all the natural gas lines that had erupted during the fire.  

And we would've been lost without the electrical workers who struggled to return power to the entire region.

What also struck me as a surprise after the fire was how my children and their friends responded.

To witness that love for their hometown and their connection to their community was honestly surprising.

Seeing my daughter crying and breaking down was painful, but hearing her talk about how special the town she grew up in was, how she loved her walks on the paths, her fondness for her schools and the playgrounds, and all of her childhood memories — it was bittersweet. 

It was so wonderful to see her appreciating and loving the home she grew up in, but overwhelming and sad, at the same time.

The realization set in that there would be a long road to recovery for our small, lovely community to be restored to what we knew and loved. What we realize now is that too often, we don’t recognize and realize how special something is until it's threatened or lost.  

A town not only is a landing place, but it holds all of our memories, our growing pains, our happiest and most difficult times.

It's not just where we reside, but that which we hold most dear to us. The idea that all of that can change in one single night is a stark reminder of the impermanence of our world. 

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As the weeks following the fire went by, clients shared their terrifying escape stories and lingering sadness.

I heard about well-meaning people saying, in an attempt to be kind: "Well it’s just 'stuff,' it can be replaced, at least you're all OK."

It can be difficult to know what to say after a tragedy, but there are certain platitudes to avoid. Some words are not comforting and minimize the pain one feels having lost their home.

Our home and physical items represent all of the things that we have worked toward, our family memories, our dreams, our safe comfort in the world, our investment for the future. 

What people need after losing their homes is compassion, kindness, and simply someone to listen to their story, empty attempts at making them feel better by reminding them it could be worse.

That doesn't heal trauma — listening to their stories does. 

Listening to stories about the loss of family photo albums, understanding their loss of treasured items, sympathizing with the loss of pets, and recognizing that some families lost all their physical possessions, is the path to healing.

Seeing how people come together to support one another after the tragedy, and how we all want to support and give, gives me faith in humanity and our ability to care for another.

This outpouring of kindness and love has been awe-inspiring. 

This overwhelming realization that we are all connected and want to help one another and feel others’ pain will stay with me. 

I saw first-hand that crises can bring out the best in people in ways they never imagined, despite living next to one another for 20 years.

The outpouring of support to ensure our community had heat, water, clothes, places to stay for the displaced, and shelters for lost animals shows me that people care so much for one another deeply and we have a natural desire to support and care for others and our neighbors.

As I think about the journey ahead of us rebuilding our town, I am deeply humbled and proud of our community. 

I recognize and am reminded of the fragileness of life — how quickly our homes, our businesses, and our belongings can be extinguished.

But I'm even more reinforced by our strength and resolve as a community, as neighbors, as friends to survive and overcome.  

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Monica Ramunda, LPC, LCMHC, RPT-S, is a licensed professional counselor and therapist working with individuals, families, children, and teens. For more information, visit Rocky Mountain Counseling Services.