The Marshall Fire destroyed the home Charla Harvey and her roommates rented. Credit: Charla Harvey

Charla Harvey, a 28-year-old photographer and graduate student at Naropa University, lost just about everything she owned when the Marshall Fire burned down her Boulder County apartment. 

Among the items burned or buried: her grandmother’s jewelry; her grandfather’s flute; gifts she was collecting for her boyfriend’s birthday; textbooks; statues from her trip to Easter Island; and memory cards of photos. She found a fireproof safe where she stored her cameras and lenses. Those, too, were destroyed. 

Harvey didn’t have renters insurance. Thousands of dollars in grants from the Community Foundation and a GoFundMe campaign helped. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has approved about $800,000 in assistance for renters, who make up just under a third of the approximate 3,000 families who have applied for FEMA aid, according to the agency. 

But Harvey said FEMA denied her initial applications for assistance. She said the agency could not verify she was living at the apartment, and even needed to visit the site to confirm it burned. After trying multiple times, she believes she’s been approved for rent assistance. 

Even if she gets the money, Harvey isn’t sure she can find a place to rent in Boulder. She paid about $800 a month for a room in the five-bedroom apartment, which she said was the best place she’s ever lived. It sat on top of a hill overlooking the city of Boulder. Now she’s looking at basement apartments, which she said cost about twice what she paid. She doesn’t want to live in a basement after the Boulder flood of 2013.

In the meantime, Harvey is living with her boyfriend in Loveland, nearly an hour outside the city of Boulder. Like the thousands of other people displaced by the Dec. 30 disaster, she is navigating life in a strange new reality after the fire. 

The Marshall Fire destroyed the home Charla Harvey, a professional photographer. Credit: Charla Harvey

‘A weird process of identity’

Grieving the loss of her home and possessions while trying to get back on her feet, Harvey describes processing one contradictory feeling after another. 

She’s thankful for the outpouring of support, but feels overwhelmed by it. One day, she said she woke up to 400 missed text messages. She needs help, but isn’t one to ask for it. She thinks twice about ordering food from restaurant menus for fire victims. 

She doesn’t want to be a burden by bringing it up, she said, or make people feel like their issues matter less. Sometimes, she said, she just wants to avoid crying. 

“I don’t want to be this needy person who asks for things, you know? But I also am kind of a needy person,” Harvey said. “I’ve never really needed so much at a time. I’ve definitely needed things. But never everything.” 

She wants to be the person you can call to have your car jumped. But her jumper cables burned. She thanked a woman for complimenting her hair tie, and struggled not to say she lost her favorite one. 

“This has been a weird process of identity. A lot of the things I lost in the fire were me. And then people are giving me clothes, which is so nice, but my style was weird, wonky and different,” she said. “So it’s like not even recognizing myself.” 

The Marshall Fire destroyed the home Charla Harvey and her roommates rented. Credit: Charla Harvey

What it means to be a fire victim

Harvey is studying transpersonal psychology at Naropa. For one of her recent classes, she assumed the role of a client. Over the course of an hour, she opened up about the fire and cried. At the end of the class, none of her classmates nor her instructor stayed behind to ask if she was okay, she said. 

“I just felt really seen, but alone,” she said. “Part of the premise of therapy is that you can’t save the person. You can’t tell them ‘oh, I do care’ just because they want to know someone cares. But I just wish someone would have said that.”

Separately, she participated in a group therapy session with one other person, who was on her honeymoon. 

“She has everything she could ever imagine. And I was happy for her. But then it was my turn,” she said. “I feel like people end up feeling bad that they’re so happy. I don’t want that.” 

She has been able to find some connection with other fire victims. She said she bonded with a lead singer at a recent concert dedicated to people displaced by the fire.  

“It’s really strange to bond with the other fire victims,” she said. “The lead singer also lost his house. I was like, ‘I’m sorry.’ And he was like, ‘I’m sorry, too.’ We just nodded.” 

Harvey’s experience at the fire relief benefit concert illustrates her grappling with what it means to be a fire victim. She wants to be seen as strong. There are darker places she could go, she said, and she is proud of herself for not. 

She said someone told her she is like a Buddhist monk, owning nothing, and that this is a learning opportunity. Harvey agreed, but said she didn’t sign up for that. 

“I know that I have to make something out of this. I just don’t know what yet. I know it didn’t happen for a reason. I’m trying to make meaning out of it. But I don’t think there is one.”

John Herrick

I report on housing, climate, health and local government for the Boulder Reporting Lab. I previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. I’m interested in stories about people, power and fairness.