When she first saw the smoke, Gurjeet Dhanoa thought it was a dust storm. She watched it as she pumped gas at a Conoco off the highway between Boulder and Denver, Colorado. But when she got back in the car, a cop car pulled out in front of her. The officer told her to turn around and go back. “Something is very, very wrong here,” she thought.
She turned, drove to a ridge a few minutes away, and, for the first time, saw clearly what would soon be called the Marshall Fire. Pushed by winds so strong she could barely stand upright, the fire cut through the suburb of Superior toward the home where her mother, a recent cancer survivor on oxygen, lived. Dhanoa called her brother, who lived with their parents and cared for their mother, and told them to evacuate now; there was no time to grab anything. They jumped in the car and escaped to Dhanoa’s house, a couple of miles away. From Dhanoa’s perch on the ridge, she watched the smoke plume of the burning houses grow so large it hid the flames.
When Dhanoa got home, the fire had not yet made the TV news. The danger seemed to have faded. “It’s not real,” she remembers thinking. “Your mind keeps trying to joke about this.” Her brother said they should prepare, just in case, so she packed up some photo albums and a chest filled with childhood memorabilia. She called her son and husband, who were on a hunting trip, and asked what they’d save. Arjun, 14, asked for a jersey and his Wayne Gretzky card, and Dhanoa’s husband requested a trophy elk mount and his old stick-shift Bronco. “All those years you’ve had that Bronco, you’ve never taught me how to drive it,” she reminded him. They left it behind.
Unlike so many of Colorado’s wildfires, the Marshall Fire began out on the plains. The flames tore through grasslands and shrubs and burned more than 1,000 homes, making it the most destructive in the state’s history. Boulder County, once a coal-mining hub, now faced a destructive fire regime, fueled in part by the carbon that was mined there a century ago.
Boulder and the suburbs surrounding it sit at the divide between the Great Plains and the Rockies. The Flatirons — the steep rock faces west of town — draw the eye, but the low roll of the plains rising up to their base is just as significant. This is the shortgrass prairie, stretching north into Canada, south into Texas, and east into Kansas, the Dakotas, and Oklahoma. It was once the home and hunting grounds of Arapahoe and Cheyenne communities, before the Sand Creek Massacre and treaty violations drove them into Oklahoma in the 1800s.
The Front Range plains are scruffy, typically sparser than the tall and mixed-grass prairies to the east. From the steep hogbacks of the foothills, they look like a smooth sea of green in the spring and gold in the winter. Before the towns were built, wildfires were infrequent but massive, spreading swiftly through the grass.
Housing developments now dominate the Front Range. In Boulder County, the suburbs were often built on the scaffolds of old coal-mining towns. A map from 1915 shows the Northern Coal Field of Colorado running beneath much of the Marshall Fire burn area: Louisville, once the heart of that coal field, now a quiet suburb where more than 500 homes burned; Old Town Superior, home to people who worked at the Industrial, Enterprise, and Monarch mines; and Marshall Mesa, a swath of open space where trail signs remind hikers of the coal seam fires that burned underground and where the Marshall Fire may have started.
In the early decades of the 20th century, the miners repeatedly went on strike, sometimes for years, over pay and working conditions. In an oral history recorded in 1978, Thomas Kerr, a former miner, described how they used explosives underground in the 1930s: “Couldn’t breathe. Dust and smoke. That black powder — awful lot of smoke.” In 1936, an explosion killed eight men working the graveyard shift at the Monarch #2 coal mine. Nearly a century later, in Superior, even Dhanoa and her family knew of that tragedy.
A disaster recovery researcher told me that what we call catastrophes, whether fires, floods or collapsing coal mines, are essentially change, compressed in time. Monarch closed a decade later, and many of the nearby mines followed suit, clearing the way for entirely different settlers.
The prairie makes way for the coal mine. The coal mine becomes a suburb. Most people in Boulder today have jobs in tech or health care or service work. They are often drawn to the area by the promise of the Rockies, dreaming of exploring those high mountains, but they build their lives on the prairie.
Since the 1970s, new housing developments have transformed the shortgrass prairie. Driven by rising prices in Boulder and Denver and the desire to escape the city’s perceived woes, wanting more land or a larger home, people flocked to the suburbs. From an airplane, the houses form an irregular grid that stretches from horizon to horizon.
Before the towns were built, wildfires were infrequent but massive, spreading swiftly through the grass.
In June 2012, during a hot, dry summer, lightning started a fire that quickly burned right up to the crest of the Flatirons that form Boulder’s back wall. From the windows of my childhood home, I saw the wind blow embers over the ridge, igniting the trees on our side. My father explained that fire was far less likely to burn downhill, but we still packed up to leave. Later, after the fire was under control, I watched the smoke plume from the plains. At least nine other notable fires started that month in Colorado, including two that set new state records for how many homes they destroyed.
Looking back, that fire seems like the start of a new era for my hometown, a time when the decisions of the past — the development of the prairie and our dependence on fossil fuels — finally find their consequences. Back then, I could imagine living with fires like that, finding ways to survive and prepare, to be resilient and tough as we faced the climate crisis. The woods surrounding Boulder continued to burn — in 2018 down Bear Creek and then again in 2020 through the north edge of town. Alongside the floods and waning snows, they came to feel like habitual crises.
In a video made after the Marshall Fire, Dhanoa’s brother Mandip tallied the family’s losses. “You see the trailer and mom’s car? That’s all that’s left. Those stairs going up to the right, that’s where my office was,” he quietly narrates. The view shifts to Dhanoa’s house, miles from the start of the burn. “That’s all that’s left, that little fence. That fence is all that’s left.”
Dhanoa’s home burned to the ground. She rescued that one carful of treasured things and no more. The house where her parents and brother lived was lost, along with all their belongings. Across the street from her parents, a house she once lived in and now rented out burned, too. Her tenants couldn’t get back in time, and they lost their pets and everything in the home.
When I spoke with Dhanoa two weeks after the fire, she was at her restaurant, the Tandoori Grill, as her staff deep-cleaned the kitchen. We talked for nearly two hours and, for the most part, she spoke enthusiastically and with great precision about her life. She told me affectionately of the close, warm community that grew out of the old mining town, between the strip malls and sprawl. “Some of them had no idea that this little small town existed in what they thought was a giant suburb,” she said.
But when she talked about her restaurant, she sounded tired. I ate there often when I was growing up; I remember the neat silver trays of the buffet and the crisp white tablecloths next to windows that looked out on a quiet south Boulder mall. When Dhanoa looks around now, though, she sees the evidence of what they survived: the booths they shoved together to sleep on, and the clothes strewn about from when they briefly lived there after evacuating.
“It’s a disaster in the restaurant. I have no ability to deal with it,” she told me. Everything that was stored at the house, from her checkbooks to her menu templates, burned. She can no longer find the answers to even the routine questions her staff has.
It had already been a hard year. Dhanoa, her husband, Paul, and the staff worked long hours to stay afloat during the pandemic. Then her mother was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and with cancer, now in remission. The fire scattered her once tight-knit neighborhood to the winds, and she doesn’t know if the people will return.
“People keep reaching out and trying to help. They don’t know how to help, and they keep asking. I don’t know what to ask for,” she said. “They feel guilty they can’t help. Because I see they feel guilty, I feel guilty. ”
The day after the fire, the smoke blew away. Snow finally fell. It arrived too late to stop the flames from sweeping through town, but it laid a quiet blanket over the wreckage. A few weeks after that, investigators announced they had narrowed down the fire’s suspected causes. One possibility: an underground fire still burning away in one of the region’s abandoned coal mines.
Kate Schimel is an award-winning editor and writer living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Kate formerly served as High Country News’ deputy editor. Follow her on Twitter @kateschimel.