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Update: According to city officials, Boulder Fire-Rescue has closed its portion of the city’s investigation into the Oct. 19 Whittier Place fire, declaring the cause “undetermined” and finding no evidence of intentional fire setting. This story was updated on Feb. 4 with the new information.
The charred remains of Whittier Place Condominiums at 2301 Pearl St. are a grim sight to behold. All 81 units were destroyed in an early morning blaze on Oct. 19, roughly two months before the Marshall Fire razed more than 1,000 more residencies in southern Boulder County.
While it didn’t make national headlines like the Dec. 30 inferno or the King Soopers shooting in March, the downtown Boulder fire is a link in the chain of cascading crises that have left people in the community reeling over the past 12 months.
According to city officials, Boulder Fire-Rescue has closed its portion of the city’s investigation into fire, declaring the cause “undetermined” and finding no evidence of intentional fire setting. Investigators determined the fire started on the exterior of the apartment complex. The fire sprinkler systems inside the building and garage functioned correctly and “there was no known fire or building code violations that would have led to the fire,” according to city officials. The portion of the investigation by the Boulder Police Department remains open.
In the meantime, with fallout from the Marshall Fire still unfolding, some former owners and tenants at Whittier Place have found themselves reliving the events of that traumatic night in the wake of the compounded tragedy. Here are three of their stories.
‘I immediately started hyperventilating — I guess due to the trauma from the first fire.’
Kate Burckel and her partner Dennis Arnold went to bed around 10 p.m. on the night of Oct. 19. The couple woke to a neighbor’s urgent banging on the door as the blaze began to intensify. When they rushed to the breezeway outside their third-floor apartment, they were met by a wall of flames.
“Luckily, the stairway on the other side was still accessible, so we ran down the stairs on the other side behind us,” Burckel said. “That was the last time I was ever in that apartment. We sat in the streets and watched it burn.”
Burckel had moved into a rental at Whittier Place with Arnold just three months before the fire. It was their first home together. They lived simply, but filled the place with things they loved: bikes, miniature radio-controlled cars and high-quality camping gear, to name a few.
“Nobody thinks about having to rebuy everything you’ve ever owned. It’s an immense thing to do, on top of having to pay bills and function as a person,” Burckel said. “There was help here and there, but most of that money was spent on more deposits and rent, and eating out because we didn’t have anywhere to cook for weeks. Buying clothes. Literally everything.”
As soon as the smoke began to clear, Burckel and Arnold knew they wouldn’t be returning home to Whittier Place. So the pair immediately began looking for rentals on Zillow, where they found a property owner in Louisville who offered to rush their application due to the fire.
A little over two months later, the couple would be displaced from that home, too, as the Marshall Fire barreled down on southern Boulder County. Their new apartment in Louisville was ultimately spared, but a close call with another disaster reignited the grief Burckel hadn’t finished processing.
Burckel and Arnold had been running errands in Boulder on Dec. 30 when news of the wildfire hit her like a ton of bricks. “I immediately started hyperventilating — I guess due to the trauma from the first fire,” Burckel said. “It was probably the first panic attack I’ve ever had in my life.”
But in addition to aggravating her trauma, the experience also enlarged Burckel’s sense of community. As an employee of the Marriott in Westminster, she and her partner were able to stay at the hotel in the immediate aftermath of the blaze at Whittier Place. She found herself back there again a couple months later, after she was unable to return to her Louisville home for a week following the Marshall Fire. Only this time, she wasn’t alone.
“The first time, I was the only fire victim by myself. The next time, I was surrounded by fire victims,” Burckel said. “Since I worked there, I was able to comfort them in their time of need, while I was also homeless. I got to know these people throughout the week, while we were all staying in the hotel together, because I was also serving them in the restaurant.”
Without rental insurance to help offset their losses from October, Burckel and Arnold are now slowly rebuilding their lives in their Louisville apartment. “We have this opportunity to create a whole other space with each other, wound together, and there’s nothing in it that’s not us. There’s nothing in it we don’t need,” she said. “So it’s brought on a whole other possibility: the growth and goodness that comes out of that.”
Burckel, who also survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, keeps ashes from the Whittier Fire in a jar on display in her new Louisville home. “I saved it so we don’t forget,” she said. “When people come over, I say, ‘Look — this is our old apartment.’”
‘When we turned around, the condo was gone.’
Doug Duprey had just gotten out of the hospital on the evening of the Whittier Fire. Four days earlier, he was struck by a driver at the intersection of Pearl and 17th, on his way to buy a sweater at Patagonia. The collision cracked his skull, causing a traumatic brain injury that impeded his speech, memory and cognition.
A loud noise woke Duprey’s wife and daughter in the middle of the night on Oct. 19, followed by frantic knocking at the door from a neighbor who told them to leave right away. “I was in poor condition, but my wife was able to get me up — she put some shoes on my feet and glasses on my face,” he said. “And we just walked right out the door, down the steps and into the street. When we turned around, the condo was gone.”
Duprey’s recollection of the experience is based on what he was told by his family. “There was really not a lot going through my mind, because I didn’t have much of a mind,” he said. “Their focus was getting me out of the cold and into a place where I could sleep. As I walked out the door, I didn’t really think about it. I couldn’t think about it. But my wife and daughter’s main goal was to get me out of there, because I was in such bad condition.”
Duprey says he’s grateful no physical harm came to his family or neighbors, and that his exit from the burning building was not as harrowing as it was for some other residents. “I understand some people had to jump out windows, or off balconies. I can’t imagine how that must have felt,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that. So my heart goes out to them.”
He said his heart also goes out to the victims of the Marshall Fire. Duprey watched the news coverage nonstop from his current residence in New Jersey, where his speech and cognition are improving with extensive rehabilitation. “I was horrified,” he said.
But it’s not horror that comes to mind when Duprey thinks back on his time in Boulder at Whittier Place. Before the injury and fire that would set his life on a drastically new course, he remembers the condo he loved, his daily walks and frequent coffee stops at the Laughing Goat.
Duprey also remembers making friends with local bartenders during his short time in Boulder — like the crew at Bar Taco, who surprised his family with a free meal after the fire. “They cared so much, and I hadn’t really been around for more than a month,” he said. “But people were very friendly everywhere. It was a great experience, being there. I loved it.”
‘The Marshall Fire has retraumatized us.’
As Lisah Brown sifted through the ash of a destroyed home in Louisville after the Marshall Fire, she was brought back to Whittier Place. That’s where five rental units owned as a retirement investment by the 60-year-old flight attendant went up in flames two months earlier.
“The Marshall Fire has retraumatized us in many ways,” Brown said. Coming to the aid of fire victims in southern Boulder County as part of Samaritan’s Purse, a volunteer organization helping people recover belongings from the debris, underscored the grief she was still feeling for her own community. “There were 81 homes lost that night — at 3:30 in the morning, in the middle of a dark night, in the freezing cold.”
Complicating Brown’s grief is a creeping sense of feeling left behind. The wildfire that destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior was a federally declared natural disaster, which opened channels of support not available to victims of the apartment fire in downtown Boulder.
Watching President Joe Biden tour the burn area with Gov. Jared Polis on Jan. 7, as they met with victims and pledged support, the pain took on a new shape. “It wasn’t until that night that I was able to get in touch with my own grief, and I cried for three straight hours. But it wasn’t really a pure grief,” Brown said. “The reaction to the Marshall Fire has been so different. It has kind of bifurcated my grieving process.”
No formal aid: Different disasters, different relief
Nonprofits like the Emergency Family Assistance Association (EFAA) and the American Red Cross pitched in to help Whittier Fire victims in the immediate aftermath with food, cash assistance and hotel vouchers. Rental and homeowners’ insurance helped those with adequate, if any, coverage. But despite suffering the same damage as their neighbors in southern Boulder County, the tragedy on Pearl Street is seen as vastly different when it comes to formal aid.
One organization Brown looked to for help was Community Foundation Boulder County, where she was told Whittier Fire victims could not be included in the nonprofit’s Wildfire Fund. To date, the program has raised over $26 million in Marshall Fire relief across more than 64,000 individual donors.
“We can understand the sentiment and the feeling around the comparison with Marshall Fire victims. But we as a foundation are governed by IRS rules,” Community Foundation CEO Tatiana Hernandez told the Boulder Reporting Lab. “There are very clear rules around when we could or should get involved in emergency situations, particularly given that it’s not part of our mission statement. We also have guidelines for when we get involved, and they’re specifically tied to events that rise to the level of a disaster declaration — be that local, state or federal.”
Without qualifying for support from such disaster relief initiatives, Brown says her only form of financial restitution came from insurance payouts, which only covered a small fraction of her total losses. “I will never recover the money. I was woefully underinsured,” she said. “It carried me through for about three months.”
Brown says the lease on the North Boulder rental home where she currently lives is expiring in March, without an option to renew. Now the Boulder resident of 38 years is considering her next move as she eyes an already tight housing market strained by so much tragedy. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. “I might have to move away. And that’s devastating.”
Want to help the people in this story? Donate to the GoFundMe campaign benefiting victims of the Whittier Fire here.