Fictional stories involving tragedy often begin with phrases such as, “It had started out like any other day…” but this is not a story of fiction; this is a story of fact. December 30th, 2021, had not begun like any other day. I’d rolled out of bed at 8:30 am after sleeping for sixteen hours straight after feeling ill upon returning from the gym the day before. I slipped down to the kitchen, said “Hi” to the family, ate a few bites of leftover Chinese food, and went straight back to bed.
When I woke up two and a half hours later, the wind was howling, and the sky was a sinister orange haze as the smoke-filled air sped across the sun-lit sky. I began searching the web to see where the fire was. Was it close? How contained? Which way was it headed? But not one Colorado fire map showed anything in the area. Not one news article was posted regarding a fire in Boulder County. I’d been through plenty of fires in California (2017’s Thomas Fire, most notably. It had come a bit too close for comfort and caused us to flee our home when the evac zone came within two blocks). And just a month or two prior, smoke from fires on the Pacific coast had traveled halfway across the country to settle in the greater Denver area and create air quality so poor that spending an hour outside was said to be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes. So what did I do? I shrugged it off and kept lazing around, feeling lousy and seeing if I could stay in bed 24 hours straight.
My oldest son was picked up by his mother soon after, and the brief opening of the front door as I said goodbye filled my nostrils with the pungent odor of a campfire. Neighbors were chasing boxes and paper around, standing up fallen trash cans that had spilled the evidence of all the presents that had been exchanged a few days prior. It was 12 pm. Little did we all know that all our recently given gifts would soon be gone, along with so much more.
The house shook, and I could see three fences blown down from the bedroom window on the second floor. The smoke continued to billow across the sky, and the bursts of fiery orange light as the sun pierced the haze became increasingly ominous as the next hour went by—still, no reported fire in the news or on any map. No Boulder County Emergency website had been established. My wife put the kids down for their nap as a virtual appointment we had scheduled approached. It was 1:30 pm.
I said, “I think we should start putting an overnight bag together if we need to leave. Just in case.”
“Okay,” she replied.
So I casually threw a change of clothes together, packed a toiletry kit, my computer, and my iPad, and then began filling my pill caddy with the next week’s worth of supplements. I began to notice a lot of cars bustling around the intersection out of the neighborhood onto the main road. I told my wife I wasn’t going to make our appointment so I could get all our stuff together. She said okay.
Then my son texted me and said they were stuck in traffic and that the neighboring town of Superior had been evacuated. “Are you guys leaving?” he asked. “Yes, getting stuff together now,” I replied.
I then found the first article about the fire raging just a couple miles away as 110 mph Chinook winds fueled the flames. It was 1:58 pm.
I ran to the basement and told my wife to cancel the appointment and that we needed to go. She said, “Okay, I’m signing on to Zoom now; I’ll tell her.”
Minutes later, the sirens wailed through the neighborhood as police and fire marshalls swarmed. I opened the front door as an officer rushed out of his car and yelled, “Houses in the neighborhood are burning! You have to leave!”
I realized the neighborhood was a ghost town. Everyone had been leaving while we casually packed our bags. While our two and three-year-old sons slept. While our skittish little Boston terrier/chihuahua mix cowered and hid, shaking because she was always so scared of the wind. While I complacently thought: All will be fine. We’ve been through this before. While my sickness and lethargy clouded my better judgment. It was 2:10 pm, and we were officially terrified.
My wife ripped the kids out of bed as I threw our half-packed bags in the back of the family car. Our youngest was strapped in the car seat first. When our three-year-old was strapped in, I backed out of the driveway and pulled to the curb. My wife ran back inside to find our little dog, Violet. Behind us, the cops were yelling over the megaphone. “You have to leave NOW!”
“She’s trying to find our dog!” I pleaded.
“You can’t wait!” they yelled back.
I began to honk. And honk. And honk.
Six houses down the block, I saw the flames rippling off a home on the other side of the street. The wind was blowing the fire straight toward us. I could’ve easily thrown a baseball into the flames.
My wife ran out of the house empty-handed. “I can’t find her!” she screamed. My heart sank. Violet was her dog first. A puppy when we’d met and the only dog I’d owned as an adult. Violet had lived with me for a year and a half as we transitioned from couples to fiances to married.
“We have to go,” I said. And I drove away as the flames grew in my rearview mirror. I was grateful our boys were too young to understand what was happening.
As we turned out of the neighborhood, I saw wooden fences burning along the road, and I realized there were flames on both sides of us. How had we not known how close the fire was sooner? Why were there no notices on the web and no emergency alerts? Was it because we’d only been in the neighborhood for six months? Because we didn’t have a landline?
We drove toward Denver, away from the fire, but I had no idea where we would go. I just hoped we’d have a home to return to. I prayed Violet would be safe and we could return the next day and locate her. My wife cried, and our boys sat placidly in their car seats, holding tight to their stuffies––a little deer named Bobo and a moose named Moosey. I felt numb. But I wasn’t sure if it was the shock, the lingering sickness, or a bit of both.
After driving halfway around the city on the toll road, I pulled over and located my phone. I’d accidentally thrown it in the back of the car as I stuffed in our few belongings. The vehicle was rank with smoke.
I called my mom and asked if she could find us an Airbnb for the night. She did, and we made our way there. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a car, and it gave the kids some space to run around barefoot. All we had for them was the clothes on their back, a few diapers, and random items in a diaper bag. They didn’t even have shoes or socks. As my wife opened her computer and connected to the wifi, I found the closest Walmart, wrote a list of items we’d need to get us through the next 24 hours, and headed out as the kids ran around as happy as could be. I needed to take care of my family. I needed something to do that felt productive. I needed a fucking drink.
When I pulled into a parking space in front of Walmart, my mom texted me and suggested I check the cameras we had installed over the garage and the front door. They had gone offline less than twenty minutes after we had fled the neighborhood. I told myself they had gone offline because the internet had shut off, not because our home had been engulfed by flames minutes after I’d gotten my family to safety.
I hope I never again have to feel the way I felt at that moment.
The night in that Airbnb was a disaster. Our youngest was used to being confined to a crib or pack-and-play and would not sleep. I’d pulled the king mattress off the second bed and put it on the living room floor so the boys could sleep side by side and not risk rolling off the edge and getting hurt. My wife and I were both exhausted, physically and emotionally, and after she left our bed and went to try to see if they’d sleep with her next to them and still got no relief, I came in. I told her to put in earplugs and get some sleep, and I’d wrestle our youngest for the night. When he finally settled down at four-thirty in the morning, our three-year-old was awake and “done sleeping.” I gave up and made some coffee.
I used those early morning hours to find updates and begin posting about our dog everywhere I could. Reporting Violet missing with the shelters, posting on social media sites, and praying she’d made it. I couldn’t tell if we could return to the neighborhood. I had yet to find out if there was even a neighborhood to return to.
Since we had to be out of the Airbnb by eleven am, I found us one I could book for the next two nights close by while we waited for news. Just five minutes after booking and receiving a confirmation call from the host to verify some information, I received a call from my property manager.
The neighborhood was gone. It had completely burnt to the ground. There was nothing to return to.
I called back the host of the Airbnb I’d just booked and explained the situation. Of course, he’d said he could cancel the reservation, along with many reiterations of “I’m so sorry” and “I can’t even imagine.”
We’d been in Colorado for only eighteen months and moved there a few months into the pandemic. We had nowhere to go, no family to turn to, and no close friends. So we did the only thing I could think of; I called my family in Texas and told them we were heading their way. I needed to get our kids somewhere safe while we regrouped.
We booked a hotel in Lubbock for the night, made sure we got a room with enough space and a crib and got on the road. The kids were asleep before we’d hit the highway.
In Colorado Springs, we stopped at a Target, and I bought clothes and shoes for the boys, PJs, and a couple of toys to entertain them. A reporter from the Denver Post called, saying he’d seen the post I’d made in a missing pet group on Facebook that had gone viral. He wanted to know if he could include the picture of Violet I’d posted and share our information in the article he was writing. I agreed, thinking it would help us find her, and then I broke down in tears for the first time. It was an ugly, awful cry, and I’m glad my boys were asleep and didn’t witness it.
We stopped to get a pizza in Amarillo for the road, and when the sweet lady running the register asked me how I was doing, I burst into tears as I told her what we’d just been through. Despite my adamant refusal, they gave us the food for free, offered sodas and desserts for the kids, and wished us well. It was some of the best pizza I ever had, and damn if I didn’t get a big spot of pizza grease on the front of one of the only two shirts I owned.
That night, as I unloaded the car at the Holiday Inn, I couldn’t help but realize that everything we owned in the world fit easily onto a hotel luggage rack, and half of those items had been purchased earlier in the day.
The kids got some melatonin gummies for the first time in their life that night, and we all crashed hard.
It was one of the more memorable ways to ring in the New Year.
When we arrived at my parent’s house in Texas, the family had already rallied, and we had bags of donated clothes and toys for the boys. My sister-in-law had set up a GoFundMe page, and people were donating, sharing, and texting us to ask for our Venmo’s. A few hours before arriving, my sister told me that the rental house my parents own a few miles from their home had fortuitously just become available (the tenants of three and a half years had just broken their lease a week or two prior). They would get it cleaned up, and we’d have our own space within a couple of weeks. It was the same house my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew had lived in for a few years after leaving their life in Houston to move closer to the family. The same place we would have moved into two years prior if we’d gone through with the decision to leave California when we were struggling with a newborn and a floundering business.
Those first couple of weeks were very hard, especially while mourning the loss of Violet. Imagining how scared she must’ve been and what an awful way it must’ve been to go. To this day, I don’t know if I would’ve ever cried over all of our lost possessions, but for our family dog, I shed countless tears.
However, our family was incredibly blessed in the aftermath. By the time we moved into the house, we’d had enough furnishings, kitchen supplies, and essentials donated that we only needed one big haul from Walmart to be adequately comfortable. Our hearts were touched by the generosity of family, friends, and complete strangers who reached out with gifts, thoughts, and prayers. I was grateful to have a good insurance company, thankful we’d only rented that home, even though I realized my personal property coverage on our renter’s policy only covered about a quarter of our belongings. I tried to understand the irony in that my family had brought us all of my childhood keepsakes a mere thirty days before the fire. We were slowly cataloging the irreplaceable items that were lost. Still, we’re a young couple. I lamented the losses faced by many of our sweet neighbors who had lived in Coal Creek for twenty, thirty, and forty years.
I flew back to Colorado about two and a half weeks after the fire to spend some time with my twelve-year-old son. We’d moved to Colorado to stay near him when his mom expressed interest in continuing her education at a school in Boulder. But after all we’d gone through to remain close, how would this work? Boulder County was already having a major housing crisis when we’d been forced to move into the neighborhood six months prior, and now over a thousand homes had been lost in the Marshall Fire––officially the worst fire in the history of Colorado. That was a thousand families looking now for housing.
I’d almost had a panic attack the first time I drove by and saw the devastation of our neighborhood with my own eyes. It was heartbreaking.
Despite the heartbreak, my son and I had a fantastic time together. We probably did more activities in those four or five days than we had done in the past year. Having two young brothers made things challenging, for sure. We talked about the future, our feelings, and what it might look like if we didn’t return to Colorado. Could we be okay and make it work? He said we’d be great, especially if the quantity of time was offset by the quality of time, as we’d proved on that first trip. And I can say a year later that this has remained true. I hear him playing with his brothers in the other room as I write this, and this last trip of 2022 to our home in Texas has only just begun.
But on that final day of that first trip back to Colorado, I had one last job to complete, and it would be the hardest of all. I was meeting Amber, the bloodhound from Justice Takes Flight, at the remains of our home to get some closure on what happened to Violet. While Amber was typically used to locate missing people, many families who’d fallen victim to the Marshall Fire were using Amber to determine if their pet’s remains were amongst the rubble or if they’d escaped.
I told my son to stay in the car because I was certain Amber would pick up the “cadaver scent” at our property, and I did not want him to see my reaction to such news. But that was not what happened. Amber immediately followed a trail away from the house, away from the direction the fire had come, up and away from the burn area. I quickly noted that that would’ve been the only direction Violet could have escaped from if she had fled through the doggy door, and the only reason she could have escaped the yard was that all of those fences had blown down in the hours before the fire reached our home.
Amber made a giant loop and returned to a small patch of yard in the front, and Amber’s handler immediately said that Violet had gotten out and had returned and likely was still returning to the yard. He believed she was still out there and that there may be hope we’d find her.
I extended my trip, made flyers, and coordinated with rescue teams who put up shelters and game cameras. Filmed a segment for 9 News and found an army of loving people in the community who rallied around our search for Violet. Violet became a symbol in Lousiville. A symbol for the families who’d lost pets and hoped once again to hold their little furry bodies in loving arms.
The guilt I felt for not returning sooner ate me alive. How scared Violet must’ve been. How cold. A blizzard moved in the night of the Marshall Fire, and there had been consistent snowfall over the following weeks. I was devastated thinking we could have found her if I’d returned sooner. But those thoughts didn’t help. So I flew back to Texas and returned less than a week later to put boots on the ground for days and days, to give it my all to try to find our Violet. I was determined that bringing her home to my wife and kids would mean our family would be okay. But that never happened.
Amber’s search for Violet was later featured on the Denver 7; this time, my interview was done via video conference. An incredible amount of people came out of the woodwork and covered Louisville and the surrounding cities in flyers. You can still see these flyers, now faded, on telephone poles and other structures around the area. One couple, Paula and Tyler, helped so much in our search that we remain friends. I’m convinced they are guardian angels.
Ultimately, we have concluded that someone must’ve picked Violet up and never had the foresight to scan her microchip. I hold on to the hope that even though she is not with us, she is still being loved and cared for by some other family. If that’s the case, then I know she is bringing them the same joy that she brought to us. And that makes everything okay.
So, it’s been a year since the day the Marshall Fire ravaged over 6,200 acres and 1,200 structures in Boulder County, and there’s a reason why I waited a year to write about it. Mainly because it still doesn’t feel real. I’ve been back to the area on at least six occasions to spend time with my son, and every time I’ve gone by the old neighborhood to see the progress. On my last trip at the end of September, a few new houses were going up. I can’t imagine rebuilding in a neighborhood that won’t even come close to resembling its former self for a decade or more, but such is the bravery and tenacity of people. I couldn’t face such a stark daily reminder, but others choose to look directly at those dark parts of their past and boldly say, “You did not defeat me. We are still here.”
Sure, there are worse things to lose than a home, a lifetime of belongings, keepsakes, or a pet, but I wouldn’t wish such an experience on my worst enemy. I hope never to have such an experience again.
The past year has been a tough one. The stress of such an experience puts strain on the weak places in one’s life. Yes, fire can burn and destroy, but it can also strengthen, purify, and fortify. In the 18th century, the Japanese developed a method of preserving wood by charring it called Shou Sugi Ban. The results are particularly striking. Look it up.
I’ve been told by many, particularly my writing community friends on Twitter, that the way I handled the situation was inspiring and graceful. It sure as shit didn’t feel that way, and maybe they would’ve never said that if they saw me in the thick of it, in those dark places, and not just in my distilled highlights online. But it’s something.
One guarantee in life is that things will change. Always. It is one of life’s great constants. And when things change, we must change too. There is a lesson in that. Because life can force us to change as it changes around us, but we must also force ourselves to change if we wish to change the life we see around us.
Life is impermanent, but so are we. We are resilient and powerful, and we have the ability to choose a different path. To choose a new narrative for how we wish to perceive ourselves and thus alter the perceptions others have of us.
As for the Herrington family, we may be in a different state, in a drastically altered environment, but overall, life is the same. It is a mixture of blessings and challenges, victories and obstacles, and I have surrendered to the fact that I cannot control all the changes we will continue to face moving forward. All I can do is work to change myself. To be the person I want to be for myself, my family, and our future––whatever it may hold.
We welcomed a new family member into our home a couple of weeks before Christmas. And if a new puppy isn’t a great example of the blend of blessings and challenges life offers, then I don’t know what is. One thing I know for sure, Roland of Gilead has been well met upon this trail we call life, and may he bring us long days and pleasant nights as we continue our journey. He will never replace Violet, but it’s clear that we picked him because his little puppy face resembles hers.
Impermanence is something we must all embrace if we want to make the most of our lives and not remain prisoners of the past. But whether that fiery embrace destroys or strengthens… well… that is a choice we all must face daily.
wonderfully done, Jason. A whole lot of raw emotion in this, but how could there not be, right?
You and your precious family have overcome so much in the past year. Your resilience is a testimony to your courage and strength. Sharing your story had to be cathartic. Your account is raw, heartbreaking and yet hopeful. You have blessed so many lives. Continue to share your new beginnings….you are a treasure ❤️
Thank you so much. It was cathartic for sure. I appreciate your support and kindness!