Editor’s Note: This multimedia storytelling project is a collaboration with Colorado-based photojournalist Eli Imadali for Boulder Reporting Lab, Leigh Paterson of KUNC, and published together with NPR.
A teacup and saucer. Mother’s ruby earrings. Dozens of marbles and a ceramic baby Jesus.
These were some of the objects Marshall Fire survivors were able to find after sifting through the ashes of their former homes.
More than a thousand homes were destroyed when the fire tore through Louisville, Superior and stretches of unincorporated Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021. For those caught in the blaze’s unforgiving path, there was little time to grab anything but essentials — in some cases, the clothes on their back and each other.
When the ash settled, residents returned in droves to look for what remained. Many were and still are haunted by what they left behind, not knowing how all-consuming the fire would be.
The Marshall Fire’s devastation in terms of property, with insured losses topping $1 billion, is well documented. But these soot-spotted objects, pulled from the ash and embedded with the stories of survivors, illuminate a universal grief. They serve as reminders of what used to be for those who fear they’ll forget the stories that went up in smoke. And for some, these items begin a new story.
With debris removal underway and ash piles being cleared in the burn area, Boulder Reporting Lab and KUNC spoke with survivors who lost their homes in the fire, to learn about what they found while sifting through the ashes — what it meant to them before the blaze, and what it means to them now.
On a windy spring afternoon in south Boulder, the Lockman family’s one-car garage in their new rental home seems normal enough. A couple of the kids’ scooters and helmets hang on the wall. Boxes and luggage clutter storage shelves. An exercise bike sits near the door.
But along the eastern wall, there’s a large wooden table piled with scraps of charred papers and mementos. They’re what Melissa Lockman found while searching through the rubble of her family’s Louisville home. A hospital tag that reads “Baby Lockman” from the birth of her now 11-year-old daughter, Zora, sits next to a high school photo of Melissa’s husband, Mark.
Melissa is a sentimental person. She kept her child’s baby teeth and accompanying notes to the tooth fairy in a drawer at her bedside to give her when she grows older. Those baby teeth and notes, like so many other things, were lost. In the first 24 hours following the fire, Zora grabbed a red pen and legal paper and frantically wrote down everything in the house she wanted to remember that was likely gone.
But Melissa, a therapist, knew that looking for what survived was important to make sense of all the loss.
“Finding some of these things helps me to move on,” she says. “It helps me to [say], ‘They were this and now they’re something different, and that’s OK.’”
So, she suited up in Tyvek, a respirator and gloves, and began to sift with the help of Baptist church members who traveled from Texas to aid survivors. The ash in their home’s foundation was three or four feet deep, she says, and scattered across the dusty piles were toxic substances released by the blaze and left behind. Heaping it onto framed mesh sifters was cumbersome, dirty and potentially dangerous. She likened it to gold mining, but for memories.
Among the things she found were the two mugs she bought her husband for their first wedding anniversary. They’re simple and bold, she says. One was cream colored before surviving the fire, the other an earthy, light brown.
“And they were intact. I’ll read into that ‘til the cows come home. Like, yeah, that endured,” Melissa says.
During the height of the pandemic, with nowhere they needed to be, Melissa and her husband sipped coffee every morning together from those mugs. They made it in a French press. He took it black. She took it with cream, no sugar.
“I savored the time with Mark. And those mugs, you know, those were our mugs,” she said.
She also spotted specks of blue, red, green and yellow amid the ash — dozens of marbles. The family had a designated marble jar, and when someone did something another family member liked, they put a marble in the jar. When it filled up, they would go out to do something fun.
She found a miniature baby Jesus, too. The Lockmans, while not religious, had owned a Christmas nativity set, and the ceramic figure was one of the few remnants of it.
Melissa remembers watching her daughter set up the nativity scene every year with so much care, detail and attention. It was Zora’s thing, she said.
She doesn’t know yet if they will buy another nativity set. “I haven’t been able to move that far forward yet,” she said.
But they have bought two new marble jars, and they’re almost full.
An ashy teacup and saucer are laid out on a table in a small dining room nook with dozens of other objects. Jill Sellars and her husband’s new apartment rental in Superior has begun to feel a bit homey, she says, but it’s full of donated items that weren’t hers until after the fire.
The teacup and saucer, though — part of her mother’s old china set that Jill brought home last summer — they’re hers. She cried with joy when her daughter found them in the foundation of her burnt down house in Superior.
When she looks at them, memories of her childhood home during holidays flood back. Her grandparents and other family, all dressed up, would sit at the table in the dining room surrounded by white wallpaper dotted with blue flowers. Her mom would proudly display the china cups and saucers on lace tablecloths with linen beneath, alongside “the good silverware” and her cherished crystal set.
Jill knows it’s just a ceramic cup and saucer. In fact, she found the exact pieces of china online while documenting items for insurance coverage. But she’s not going to buy them. They’re not the same china she remembers placing in just the right way as she helped her mom set the table.
“It’s the memories that come from that,” Jill said. “I appreciate the things that I do have, because objects, I think, prompt memories.”
But when it comes to those important things she hasn’t been able to recover, she feels a sort of looming identity crisis.
“I worry about forgetting things that were important to me, because they were just always there,” she said. “And, again, they were all just things. But they were my things.”
The teacup and saucer reminds Jill of her father, Charlie Ferguson. While serving in the Korean War in 1953, Charlie purchased the china set in Japan. He and Jill’s mother were engaged to be married at the time, and he shipped it back to her in the states.
Last December, Jill lost her father — who lived in nearby Boulder — just hours before losing her home, and beloved dog Peanut, in the Marshall Fire. He was 89, had lived with Alzheimer’s for four years and, two years ago, was diagnosed with cancer.
Charlie died peacefully at exactly midnight on December 30, 2021, as Jill sat with him. She, her husband, their kids and their kids’ families stayed up until 4:30 a.m. reminiscing about her dad, his life and the house she grew up in.
About six hours later, the fire started. Shortly after the flames began to spread, she knew it wasn’t just her dad she would be losing — her house would be destroyed, too.
Now, on top of layers of trauma and grief, she has to clear out her dad’s old things from his home, which was spared, while replacing all of her own. It’s a bizarre contradiction that’s not lost on her.
“It was the strangest combination of having nothing, but having to get rid of a bunch of things at the same time, because I couldn’t hang on to everything that my dad had. I didn’t want to,” Jill said.
She’s happy she can say goodbye to her father’s house and all of his things. But she didn’t get the same chance for her own house and things. And that’s why, she said, she’s going to preserve the objects she recovered from the rubble.
“The only reason I’m really even keeping these things is I feel like they’re an extension of a story,” said Jill, who calls herself the family historian. “They’re props for telling that story now. And I hope my grandkids will be able to see them.”
That means she won’t be cleaning that teacup and saucer from her mother’s china set that her dad bought all those years ago. To her, its new ashy smudges mark the beginning of a new story.
Zuzanna & Kazimierz Jaszczak
Just days after the Marshall Fire, Zuzanna Jaszczak was determined to sift through the debris of her childhood home in Superior. It was her parents’ house of 26 years that she happened to be visiting for the holidays when the fire burned through their neighborhood. While she had long moved out, she still stored many keepsakes there. She understood that she wouldn’t be able to recover much, if anything.
“But it was important for me to try,” Zuzanna says. “You kind of have this feeling: I need to do this for myself, because if I don’t, I’m going to get stuck in the devastation of this event and I cannot afford to do that. I don’t want to do that. I want to be able to move on and get on with my life and continue leading a good life.”
It wasn’t an easy undertaking to start sifting. Zuzanna ran into roadblocks when trying to get help from a nonprofit due to safety and logistical concerns.
So, she decided to start the process on her own with her dad, Kazimierz Jaszczak, who owned the home. After spending a few days looking through the lot, Zuzanna recognized a drawer from her desk in her old room. It was scorched, but intact. She and her father managed to pull it out and saw that some small cardboard boxes full of jewelry were still there. Zuzanna fished out a pair of ruby earrings from one of the boxes.
In the late 1970s, Kazimierz recalls, he was on a business trip to Lviv, Ukraine, not far from his native Poland. He worked in the mathematics department at the University of Warsaw at the time, and his wife was just days away from going into labor with Zuzanna. He wanted to get her a gift, so he went shopping and bought the ruby earrings
Zuzanna remembers seeing her mom, who died of cancer in 2013, wearing the earrings. They had been stored in her dad’s room for several years when Zuzanna decided to wear them with a pink dress on Christmas Eve in 2019.
“Because I hadn’t ever worn them, it was kind of like a ritual almost. It was like this very special touch to the evening for me personally,” she remembers.
It felt luxurious to wear them, she says. They were such valuable earrings, but also so sentimental. Finding them in perfect condition amid all the destruction caused her to almost scream with joy at two passersby.
But when Kazimierz saw that his daughter found the earrings, he didn’t feel much of anything.
“I was just looking at everything and I was so devastated that nothing would bring joy to me at the time,” he says.
Sifting was a painful process for Kazimierz. When he first saw what was left of his neighborhood, he was reminded of images of Warsaw after it was bombed by Nazi Germany in World War II. He knew he wouldn’t be able to recover anything of use from his home. He felt then and still feels now that to survive, he must leave his past behind.
“I have to rebuild my life. But I need to be able to say goodbye to my previous life. Maybe keep it somewhere in my memory. But really, not to live the old life,” he says, his voice wavering.
Kazimierz immigrated to the United States to work as a software engineer in 1989, and was joined the next year by his wife and kids. So much energy and loss went into building a life for himself and his family in a foreign country.
“We know the cost of assimilating [to a] different country, making a decent living, being part of a completely different society, being part of a completely different system,” he explains. “And I had this feeling that I actually made it in America, and all of a sudden everything collapsed during one day, or during a couple of hours.”
It’s not that Kazimierz doesn’t appreciate what they’ve been able to recover. He’s glad they have the earrings and some other objects from before the fire. He’s grateful Zuzanna grabbed an old photograph of his wife and her journal. And there’s even been a small bit of humor in sifting — various jars of his homemade pickled fruits and vegetables, unbroken and still edible, were found. But dwelling on the few things that survived meant confronting all that was lost.
“If I look at this luggage behind me, this will be devastating for me and it wouldn’t allow me to build this new future,” he said. “I know that such a moment will come. I don’t know when. It is not now. I’m trying to actually on purpose isolate myself as much as I can from the past, to be able to simply move forward.”
Kazimierz does have a couple things decorating his new Boulder rental home from before the fire. Among them is a small, square tile painted blue, yellow and white with a star at its center. Zuzanna found it in the debris — its color peeking out from the various shades of gray and black. It sits on his windowsill above the sink where, like many Polish people who grew up without dishwashers, he spends time washing dishes by hand.
Zuzanna, who lives in Sweden and travels frequently, bought the tile while in Lisbon, Portugal. She was walking around on a summer day in the Alfama neighborhood when she came upon a small workshop where women were making and selling tiles. Zuzanna, not knowing Portuguese, spoke with the women in Spanish. She thought of her dad the whole time and bought the tile just for him.
For Kazimierz, the tile always represented his daughter.
“And this little piece always reminded me that she’s somewhere. And not only that she’s somewhere, but that she’s somewhere for me,” he says.
“And it’s a very delicate, very fragile thing, but it survived, intact, with some scratches, some bruises, some cuts, but it survived. And it’s whole,” Zuzanna adds.
“And we will also survive the same way,” her father replies.