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A year after the Marshall Fire, survivors continue struggling with its effects

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One year ago today, the Marshall Fire, Colorado's most destructive fire in history, incinerated more than a thousand homes across Boulder County. For many survivors, the memory remains very fresh. Leigh Paterson with member station KUNC spoke to some of them.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: The Marshall Fire started as a wind storm, a big one with sustained winds of 60 miles an hour, gusting up to 100 miles an hour.

SUSAN GIBSON: So over the years, I've experienced a lot of really terrifying windstorms.

PATERSON: Susan Gibson has lived in this mobile home park outside of Boulder since 1996.

GIBSON: However, that storm on the 30 was obviously way worse than anything I've ever experienced.

PATERSON: She and her two cats live in a small trailer home with leafy green plants inside and a garden she loves outside.

GIBSON: That windstorm was so extreme that it started tearing my whole pergola apart. And so I just grabbed my cordless drill and went out and started, like, reinforcing it.

PATERSON: And getting ready to evacuate, along with her and her neighbor's cats.

GIBSON: So I had all the cats in carriers ready to go.

PATERSON: And all her valuables.

GIBSON: Wow. That's some intense anxiety when you can see the fire, watching pieces of metal fly down the street and, like, whole windows and chunks of roof and whatever, you know?

PATERSON: One year later, assessors from the city and county are still surveying damage to repair all the homes. At least 450 mobile homes were impacted by the high winds. The fire never reached Gibson's neighborhood, but it destroyed nearly 1,100 homes in Boulder County. So far, fewer than a quarter of homeowners have been issued permits to rebuild. One of the first fire chiefs on the scene was Sterling Folden with Mountain View Fire Rescue. In raging winds blowing around debris and embers, he evacuated some homeowners.

STERLING FOLDEN: I started to turn my vehicle around to get out, and the fire was at the house.

PATERSON: It swept over Folden's GMC Yukon, melting his grille, emergency lights and breaking windows. He's pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing, his car being burned up with him inside.

FOLDEN: So that was a point where I thought, this is a pretty dangerous fire.

PATERSON: An analysis of the emergency response compared the area to a war zone. Entire communities burned down. Fire hydrants failed in some neighborhoods. Propane tanks exploded. Thirty-seven thousand residents evacuated that day, and two people died.

FOLDEN: Which is terrible. There was a lot of homes lost and a lot of people's memories and personal items.

PATERSON: Folden says 50 of his department's firefighters responded to the fire, and many first responders are still carrying baggage. Some of them have needed time off. Some have sought mental health help, including Folden.

FOLDEN: I still hold a lot of what I feel is responsibility and question, could I have done something different to have changed the outcome?

PATERSON: He says the demand for Mountain View's peer support program has increased this year. They're working to expand it.

FOLDEN: And I think that a lot of us take that personal and hold that responsible. And I think that's still true a year later. It is for me, anyway.

PATERSON: The investigation into what caused the disaster is ongoing, but this community may have answers soon. The Boulder County Sheriff's Office says it hopes to wrap up that investigation in early 2023. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARBE AND DURAND'S "FRAGILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Email: lpaterson@insideenergy.org; leighpaterson@rmpbs.org