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How salvaged items from a Colorado wildfire can ease survivors' pain of loss

Months after the Marshall Fire ripped through northern Colorado on Dec. 30, 2021, some evacuees are returning to sift through the debris and hunt for treasured possessions.

Months after the Marshall Fire ripped through northern Colorado on Dec. 30, 2021, some evacuees are returning to sift through the debris and hunt for treasured possessions.Keep reading at Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.



Last December, the Marshall Fire ripped through northern Colorado neighborhoods. Since then, residents have been working through the debris. Leigh Paterson of our member station KUNC reports that salvaged objects can ease the pain.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: After losing their house in Superior, Colo., Jill Sellars and her husband, along with their dog Penny, moved into an apartment close by. On her kitchen table, she's laid out the objects they pulled from the rubble.

JILL SELLARS: I appreciate the things that I do have because objects prompt memories. I'll start with probably the most meaningful - is this cup and saucer.

PATERSON: The pieces are covered in ash and soot but are undamaged. Both are white with a leafy pattern.

SELLARS: I always helped Mom set the table. So we always had to set them in certain ways, with one of the leaves going the certain way (laughter). So it was just always something - you know, when important things happened in our lives, the china came out.

PATERSON: The Marshall Fire destroyed more than a thousand homes in Boulder County, including Sellars'. Since then, residents have sorted through the rubble, desperately hoping to find glimpses of their old lives.

SELLARS: They retrieved - this is my wedding ring.

PATERSON: The diamond is now white and cloudy, damaged by the fire. Salvaging a few precious items has helped Sellars feel a sense of closure, especially now, as bulldozers and heavy equipment clear the debris.

SELLARS: They're not getting rid of anything important because I have found what's important to us. They're just getting rid of trash now.

PATERSON: From a temporary rental house nearby in Boulder, Zula Jaszczak goes through a small variety of items that were recovered from the debris of her dad's house...

ZULA JASZCZAK: Here are the earrings, and here are some other pieces.

PATERSON: ...Like her mom's ruby jewelry, old photos of her dad as a baby and a hippie in Poland and jars of pickled cabbage and pears.

Z JASZCZAK: Even this fire couldn't get to the Polish pickling process.

KAZ JASZCZAK: (Laughter).

Z JASZCZAK: That is one constant.

PATERSON: But for her dad, Kaz Jaszczak, who moved to Superior from Poland in 1989, these objects from the past were painful.

K JASZCZAK: I was just looking at everything, and I was so devastated that, no, nothing would bring any joy to me. I had this feeling that I actually made it in America. And out of sudden, everything collapsed.

PATERSON: Homeowners who lost everything are worried about this happening again. High fire danger in the area persisted for much of the spring. Several blazes forced evacuations. After Melissa Lockman's family evacuated during the Marshall Fire, her daughter, Zora, who's now 11 years old, started making a list.

MELISSA LOCKMAN: Do I want to use the word frantic? Sure. Pretty frantically started writing down everything that she wanted to remember that was gone.

PATERSON: Lockman brings out a piece of crumpled legal paper.

LOCKMAN: So that's her list that she made, like, immediately.

PATERSON: Every square inch of the page is covered in words, written in red pen - scrunchies, "Harry Potter" Legos, blue hair dye. But Lockman was able to salvage some treasures, including this smelly, burnt pile of papers that she says tells her family's story, like the medical notes from her daughter's birth.

LOCKMAN: Which was epic. It was worth documenting.

PATERSON: A hospital tag reading Baby Lockman and a babysitter's log from when Zora was little.

LOCKMAN: 7:15 a.m. - tiny bit of toast. It helps me to, you know, kind of just make sense of the loss. Like, they were this, and now they're something different. And that's OK.

PATERSON: Lockman hopes other families will get prepared in case there's another disaster by taking pictures of belongings and coming up with an evacuation plan.

LOCKMAN: So I do wish that for everyone because I know that we wanted to and we never made the time for it. And then like, OK, Louisville, Colo., burned, you know? And that - nobody expected that.

PATERSON: Since then, the Lockmans have become more fire-ready. They've written down what they'd grab if they had five, 10 or 20 minutes. Plastic bins are now stacked in the garage, ready to be packed with stuff.

For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson in Denver.

INSKEEP: That story was produced in collaboration with Eli Imadali and the Boulder Reporting Lab. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.