During the historic Dec. 30, 2021, Marshall Fire outbreak in Boulder County, Sophie Nelson and her husband drove toward her childhood home in Louisville as the flames drew closer. She texted her mother to see what was happening.
“(Mom) said by the time you get here everything is going to be burnt or it’ll be better,” said Sophie, a three-time Colorado State University graduate (2014, ‘16 and ‘19) and a local veterinarian. “And we thought, well, we can’t just sit in Fort Collins and wonder what’s going to happen.”
Her family was able to gather important documents, computers and a few family mementos as they took shelter away from the Enclave neighborhood home that Becky and Roy Nelson lived in since 1989. They monitored television and social media for updates on a fire that already caused a nearby stable where Sophie learned to ride horses to release its animals. It was too late to load them onto trailers. Luckily, the horses all survived.
“On the news, you could see our neighborhood burning in the background. So, we knew that there was a good chance our house would be gone,” said Sophie, who is married to CSU alum and employee Matt Flick. “On one hand, it’s like just accepting the reality that it’s gone. (My parents and nephew) were safe, they got important stuff out. That’s all that matters. But it also was this horror – watching it on live TV.”
A family celebration
Instead of going on a heli-skiing trip in Canada, CSU graduate Prescott Delaware decided he wanted to be at his sister Elise’s Dec. 29 engagement party at his childhood home in Louisville. So, he came home at Christmas for what was to be about a five-day visit.
“She got engaged the afternoon before,” said Prescott, a 2016 CSU geology graduate who works for a California environmental consulting firm. “I was there and able to take some photos and then we had both families able to be at the house.”
The next afternoon, Delaware was working and happened to look outside. “We didn’t get notified of anything,” Delaware said. “I was just working at home and I saw like, ‘Oh, the living room is kind of a different color’ and looked up at the sky and there’s like a bunch of smoke rolling past the window at like 100 miles an hour.”
The Delaware family drove up the hill from their Enclave neighborhood home to a natural area for a better view. What they saw were flames about 500 yards away that crossed a highway.
“So, we pretty much got back, grabbed the dogs (whippets Scout, Chamois and Starina), grabbed the laptops and that was it,” Prescott said. “We didn’t even really say goodbye as we were leaving the house. We just kind of … we just left. It was like, ‘Everybody’s out. Everybody’s good.’ My dad was trying to stay back and fight the fire or whatever. He figured this is too bad, so he got out of Dodge, too.”
One home survived; one burned to the ground
The next morning, Sophie found out what happened to her family’s home.
“We went through that whole night not knowing if the house was here,” she said. “And then the next morning, on a lot of those aerial views (put out by the governor), you could see our house in the background.”
Louie and Judy Delaware – the Nelsons’ best friends who lived across the street – were not so lucky.
“The picture they posted on social media saying their house is gone, our house is right behind it with the sun shining on it,” said Sophie, who is two years older than Prescott, her childhood friend. “So, we texted that morning,” she said as tears welled in her eyes.
Before going across the street to the Delawares – where her wedding shower was held – Sophie pointed out a whippet statue and a stone “Welcome” sign that lived on their neighbor’s porch. Prescott had brought them over during one of his trips to where his family’s house had stood.
“Nobody wants to come hang out at our house right now,” Prescott said with a touch of gallows humor. “(The Nelsons) are going to be a beacon for the neighborhood that their house is still standing.”
‘It’s definitely hard to look at’
It was not just luck that the Nelsons’ house – and two other neighbors on their side of the street – remained while most of the neighborhood was only charred remains.
Sophie said a neighbor’s brother and that man’s friend got into the Enclave neighborhood, found all the garden hoses they could and sprayed down their yard and house and the homes on either side. Sophie said they even trimmed a pine tree near their house to limit the chance of fire.
“We were able to meet the brother about three days after the fire, and hearing his story was incredible,” Sophie said. “He said he had to keep putting out flames and embers by our mailbox as it kept re-igniting.”
Across the street, not much remains of the Delawares’ home.
“Our house literally exploded,” said Prescott, whose trip ended up being a month as he helped his parents. “We were finding bricks that were 60 or 70 feet away from the house.
“It’s definitely hard to look at, you know,” Prescott continued. “All things considered; I feel really bad for the Nelson family. The situation that my family has is terrible, but there is a degree of flexibility that is afforded by it. Whereas (the Nelsons) still have their house standing, but it makes things a bit more complicated.”
‘You build up neighborly love over the years’
Insurance does not necessarily cover smoke-damaged items, and the Nelsons figure many things will have to be replaced. They have no idea about a timetable for repairs. A fine layer of ash covers much of the house’s inside.
They were able to find temporary housing while the police keep gawkers away from the area. People are not allowed to stay in their homes due to toxic fumes.
But while the Delawares set up a successful GoFundMe account for what would be a total rebuild, the Nelsons and the other families whose houses are standing are caught in red tape.
Sophie said her parents did register at Bed, Bath and Beyond for necessities for the short term. She said those with damage are sort of the forgotten children of the disaster.
The fire also physically split up decades-long friendships.
“I know my parents are so thankful (for donations), and they are super sad now that they do not get to live next to (the Nelsons),” Prescott said. “You build up neighborly love over the years and one day, you just can’t live next to each other. That part really sucks.”
Sophie was born in 1992, three years after her parents bought what was then the sixth house in development. She and Prescott said their neighborhood was idyllic and that Louisville often graced the lists of best places in the country to raise children.
“There were a lot of kids (here) when I grew up,” Sophie said. “Trick-or-treating in this neighborhood was really good because people gave you big candy bars and there were a lot of kids. So, it was great. And having the park back there was awesome.”
‘Trying to put one foot in front of the other’
The Nelsons hope to return to their home when it is clean and safe.
“It was interesting, because my parents are like, ‘If we’re going to move back here, there’s going to be nothing,’” Sophie said. “And my dad said, ‘Well, that’s what it was like when we moved out here.’ They started from nothing and they’re going back to nothing.”
After talking with neighbors in the Enclave, the Nelsons said many of them plan to stay.
“And that just shows how great of a neighborhood and community this is for people,” Sophie said. “That they want to put that much effort into coming back to such a painful place with such painful memories, that you want to rebuild.”
That may include the Delawares, who lost old family photos and all their possessions.
“But you know what? The house is not the important thing,” Prescott said. “It is the people. And this has just been a huge lesson in that for all of us, for sure. We’re trying to put one foot in front of the other and figure out what the best steps for the family are now.”
From idyllic to indescribable
Sophia Nelson sadly surveyed the charred remains of Louisville’s Enclave neighborhood where she spent her entire youth.
She pointed out a couple houses where she babysat. Now, all that is left is rubble. Another she remembered playing in the backyard. Nothing standing but a few bricks.
The park behind her house echoed with laughter while Sophie played with friends until dark. Now, the park is roped off and its plastic slides have melted.
How to help and get help
Several individuals and organizations have helped raise money for communities and families affected by the Marshall Fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses and affected about 150 more. Here are some of the many options to help or receive assistance:
- The Community Foundation of Boulder County has a website with links for assistance and to donate to the Wildfire Fund.
- Colorado State University accepted donations at a Jan. 4 men’s basketball game that went to the American Red Cross Marshal Fire Relief Effort. The link to donate is here.
- Fire victims can visit DisasterAssitance.gov for a variety of services.
- The Colorado Responds website has links for volunteering, donating and requesting help.
- CSU economics professor Stephan Weiler explains why the disaster is a “triple whammy” for survivors.