When 65-year-old Karen Finch stepped outside her residence at the Sans Souci mobile home park on the morning of Dec. 30, she could barely stand up straight against the barrelling wind. It whipped through nearby Shadow Canyon before pummeling the manufactured home community at speeds topping 100 miles per hour, screaming eastward on its path to accelerate the unforgiving destruction of the Marshall Fire.
Pretty soon, Finch began receiving urgent and troubling messages. “I start getting texts like, ‘Bill and Renee’s roof is blowing off!’ Then I got a text from somebody saying there’s a fire,” she said. “I just started pulling things out of my house and shoving them in my van.”
Finch’s plan was to go to a friend’s house in Lafayette, where she knew there would be space for her and her guitars. But as she scurried to the van with her belongings, she looked south toward her route on Highway 93 and beheld an apocalyptic scene.
“There was a wall of flame as far as you could see. I’m like, ‘I don’t know where I’m gonna go now,’” Finch said. “Then my daughter got hold of me on the phone. Her friend was working the fire, and she told me: ‘He says get the f— out of there.’”
So that’s what she did. As the official evacuation order came down, Finch went north to stay with her daughter’s in-laws in central Boulder, where she followed news reports as the inferno destroyed more than 1,000 homes to the east in Louisville and Superior.
When she returned to the 11-acre park just south of city limits, Finch — who serves as vice president of the residential co-op board — knew its troubles were far from over. Trees and power lines were down. Metal skirting around many of the community’s 61 manufactured homes had been peeled back like tin cans, exposing vulnerable pipes that would burst days later amid freezing temperatures and continuing power outages. Some roofs, like the one on her neighbors’ home, were gone completely.
It could have been worse, but it was still bad. And considering the needs of the park’s approximately 80 low- and middle-income residents, many of whom are seniors or disabled, it was evident as the smoke cleared that the Sans Souci community was in for a long and complicated recovery.
Sans Souci is French for “without worry,” but there’s plenty of concern here as residents reel from damage caused by winds that fueled the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. They may have been luckier than their neighbors to the southeast, but effects of the cataclysmic weather event are still reverberating throughout the community.
Chief among these is the problem of water access. The park is served by its own self-contained water system, which pumps from a shallow well on the southeastern edge of the 11-acre lot. The system went down after a broken tree limb took out a power line, which left residents in the dark for nearly four days. The freezing temperatures that followed — combined with the exposure from wind-damaged skirting — caused many residential pipes to burst.
Some residents, like 80-year-old Doretta Hultquist, are still without water. She says her old galvanized pipes, running above ground beneath her home from the kitchen to the bathroom, are corroded and contaminated with lead. “The plumber said all of my pipes need to be replaced,” she said. “I asked him, ‘Well, what does something like that cost?’ And he said $4,800 — which I don’t have.”
Hultquist, who has lived at Sans Souci for 52 years, says she received some money from the Red Cross and the Boulder County Wildfire Fund, but she says it’s not enough to fix the plumbing and cover the other necessary structural repairs to her home.
“It snowed after the fire, and I didn’t get up there and shovel the snow off like I usually do, so it’s leaking in the living room,” she said. “I have this huge tub, and I poked holes where the water was collecting in the ceiling. I put real long shoestrings [in the holes] so the water would come down and go directly into the tub. I use that to flush the toilet.”
As many as 50 of the park’s 61 mobile home units went days without water during the power outage and post-fire freeze, Sans Souci Customer Service Representative Katherine Abeyta told the Boulder Reporting Lab. She said at least 10 residents are still without water due to damaged pipes. Bottled water is often the only potable option for these people, many of whom visit friends or recreation centers to bathe and use the toilet.
Water trucks were brought in to serve residents in the immediate aftermath, setting the co-op back an extra $6,000 in the crucial moments following the disaster. This vital expense is one of the many financial hits compounding the need for relief in Sans Souci after the Marshall Fire.
‘We need some help, too.’
Offsetting costs already incurred while paying for future repairs is the community’s biggest need right now, according to resident and co-op president Michael Peirce. “The actual needs are going to be better addressed by funding, so we can hire folks,” he said. “Otherwise, volunteer efforts are more hassle than help.”
That’s why national cooperative support organization Columinate launched a GoFundMe for Sans Souci on Jan. 7 to support relief efforts. As of this writing, the fundraiser has reached $28,795 of its $100,000 goal across contributions from 267 individual donors.
“We didn’t get the same kind of damage as the people who lost everything — their home and everything in it, their vehicles. They were only able to get out with their lives,” Hultquist said. “We’re not in that dire situation. But we’re a low-income to moderate-income mobile home park, and we need some help too.”
Fellow resident and interim co-op secretary Peggy Kuhn echoes Hultquist’s call for help. “We need skirting, insulation and galvanized pipe replacement on units before we’re stable,” she said. “It’s just going to be a pretty hard winter to survive without additional resources.”
‘Sans Souci magic’
The near-miss from the Marshall Fire wasn’t the Sans Souci community’s first brush with natural disaster. The 2013 Boulder County flood hit the park hard, and previous wildfires had come too close for comfort. With the climate crisis feeding extreme weather events like the fire-adjacent windstorm that rocked the mobile home park on Dec. 30, it likely won’t be their last.
“Our oldest residents say they’ve never seen winds like this. We have never had this type of thing,” Kuhn said. “The county wants to help us with climate resilience. Because we’re so close to the canyon, winds can get unusually high.”
So when and if Sans Souci residents are able to rebuild their lives in the wake of the disaster, the potential for future calamity continues to hang over an already vulnerable community.
But standing feet from where her neighbor’s roof was destroyed, Karen Finch, who wisely heeded her daughter’s advice to head north in the early moments of the fire, said she’s feeling grateful that her community wasn’t hit harder. Her own home is still intact. Her water is running. “I have a shit ton of gratitude,” she said. “I feel like I have a basket full of angels.”
While acknowledging the pain of residents dealing with serious fallout from the disaster, Finch says there’s something special about Sans Souci that perseveres in the face of tragedy.
“Souci’s just got this magic,” she said. “It’s survived a lot, and it will continue to survive.”
Want to help the people in this story? Contribute to the Sans Souci GoFundMe campaign here.