This project is a collaboration between Boulder Reporting Lab, the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, KUNC public radio and The Conversation.
For four months, a group of master’s students at CU interviewed dozens of Marshall Fire standing home survivors, scientists, researchers, remediation professionals, government officials and others about health effects from the disaster and the lingering impacts felt by many. They also examined remediation reports and research. This is the first story in their series. Read the accompanying science explainer and the story behind the story. In collaboration with KUNC investigative journalist Robyn Vincent, they produced a radio segment that also aired on NPR. The Conversation published this story.
The sun-yellow house with purple trim near downtown Louisville was more than a home to Justin and Jasmine Schrader. It was the classroom where Jasmine homeschooled their three elementary school-age daughters. It was also an environmental haven for their middle child, 9, who has a condition that causes severe sensitivity to chemicals and heavy metals.
“We had just finished a five-year-long process of replacing all our belongings to make a safe home for her,” Jasmine said. “We spent our life savings replacing everything” — the carpet with wood floors, the wall paint with a non-toxic brand, the mattresses, pillows and furniture with ones not treated with flame retardant.
The Schraders, like tens of thousands of others across Boulder County, evacuated the sanctuary of their home amid the chaos on Dec. 30, 2021. They abandoned everything, save for a change of clothes and plates holding half-eaten lunches. That night, Justin and Jasmine couldn’t sleep, fearing they had lost their forever home. In the morning, Justin watched a video of their street a neighbor posted to Facebook.
Their house was still standing.
“At the time I was like, ‘Yes!’” he said. “Now, I wish it had burned.”
The Marshall Fire destroyed more than a thousand homes, leaving behind a visible toll of destruction: charred and twisted piles of debris where houses once stood, vehicles melted to metal frames, stick-figure remnants of trees. A year later, construction crews now buzz around skeletons of new homes being built. For Sale signs flag empty dirt lots.
Thousands of people lost everything they owned that day — photo albums, irreplaceable heirlooms, even family pets. Some families are still moving from one rental to another, still agonizing over whether to rebuild, still consoling kids who are afraid to go to sleep. The toll on these fire survivors is permanent and undeniable.
But the Marshall Fire has also taken a less visible, though also painful, toll on a different group of residents.
Across the burn area, toxins from incinerated homes, cars and vegetation settled inside still-standing homes, including the Schraders’ and others. These survivors with homes that still stand broaden our understanding of the Marshall Fire’s scope of loss and displacement. Their stories illuminate gaps in insurance coverage and local recovery and rebuilding processes. And they offer lessons for other communities as climate change increases the frequency of urban wildland fires.
“We have lost our home to smoke damage,” said Justin, a high school teacher in Thorton. “It is horrible that people lost everything in the fire. This situation is hard, too. The smoke damage route is so much more subjective.”
Boulder County’s official tally of the fire’s residential destruction is 1,084 homes destroyed and another 149 damaged. But that doesn’t include smoke-damaged homes that look fine on the outside, but may be too contaminated to safely live in. “We don’t have an accurate count of the number of homes that suffered smoke damage,” said Bill Hayes, the county’s air quality coordinator, “but there are between 13,000 and 14,000 homes in the burn area that were not destroyed.” The burn area spans about 10 square miles. The smoke-damaged area is closer to 15 square miles. “I think it’s safe to say that a large majority of those [homes] suffered a degree of smoke damage ranging from mild to severe.”
Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a non-profit information resource for insurance customers, agreed: “There isn’t a complete, verified number of standing homes impacted,” she said, but she believes it’s significant. She estimates that more than 600 standing home survivors have banded together in informal groups to share information.
Many of them gather in a Facebook group dedicated to standing home discussions. A separate support group meets weekly at the Louisville Recreation Center. As they rebuild their lives, these survivors say, a sense of guilt pervades: They were supposed to be the lucky ones. Most have had to wade through the complex terrain of smoke mitigation without clear guidance, navigating complicated insurance claims and rampant underinsurance. Some are still reeling from exposure to hazardous pollutants and health symptoms no one can fully explain.
“That was the last night of our regular lives,” Jasmine said about the eve of the Marshall Fire, “and it has been a slow and painful death of our old life since then.”
The Schraders hoped they could return home a few weeks after the fire. But immediately, they were overwhelmed with conflicting information from insurance companies, industrial hygienists, government officials and even scientists about the safety of their house and the belongings inside. Some experts said the indoor environment would be safe once cleaned. Others warned about remediation cleaning — if not done well, it could cause even more harm. And then there were those who highlighted the lack of research to back up either claim.
After the fire, the Schraders moved in with Jasmine’s parents, into their two-bedroom house in North Boulder. Justin and Jasmine wore N95 masks when they visited their Louisville home to protect their lungs from toxic particulates. Sometimes they donned full protective suits to shield their skin and clothes. Still, they would experience burning eyes and headaches after spending more than a few hours in the home, they said. Justin described needing frequent breaks in the fresh air to complete a day of inventory. They kept their children away, especially their middle daughter.
According to Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist with Colorado State University, “if children are already immunocompromised, and they’re kind of marshaling their immune systems to fight off the insults from smoke exposure, that may then render them kind of less able to fight off other types of infections.”
Worried for their family’s long-term health, the Schraders decided this past September not to move back — to toss everything they own and sell their beloved home.
They’re now in limbo with their insurer State Farm. Giant trash bags and boxes of clothes, toys and family photos sit in corners of the house collecting dust. So does the nontoxic furniture they bought before the fire, now contaminated from smoke and particulates. They wanted State Farm to replace it all but the company refused. Justin and Jasmine said the company State Farm hired to assess the interior of their home, Ninyo and Moore Engineering, determined all their possessions could be cleaned. The Schraders are still hoping to negotiate.
Meanwhile, before they can deep clean and list their home, they must remove everything. They want State Farm to pay to store the items. They also want State Farm to cover an additional safety inspection before they put the house on the market. The company has so far agreed to reimburse for an indoor air quality test the Schraders have already done.
“We would feel terrible selling this house to the next family without testing to make sure it is clean,” Jasmine said.
“But according to our insurance, our policy doesn’t cover health and safety of a home,” Justin added.
More than $2 biIlion in losses have been submitted for home insurance claims related to the Marshall Fire, according to the state’s insurance commissioner. As of early November, the department had received 181 legal complaints related to the fire, Vincent Plymell, assistant commissioner for communications with the Department of Regulatory Agencies, said.
The Marshall Fire was not just a wildfire. It’s been classified as a wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire, meaning it burned not just the brush, grass and trees of an outdoor fire, but also houses, cars and everyday material things of human life.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, “one in three homes in the United States is now in the WUI, and 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire.” As the risk of WUI fires increases amid a worsening climate change crisis, so do risks to human health.
For Marshall Fire survivors, the WUI fire classification is important for understanding which toxins they may have been exposed to. When houses and other structures burned in the fire, so did everything inside them: insulation, paint, sealants, electronics, kitchen appliances, batteries, fiberglass, nylon carpeting, flame retardant coating and more. All of that turned to ash, soot, char and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include toxic chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde. Those particulates and gases then traveled downwind with wind gusts up to 115 miles per hour that spread the fire that day. Homes fortunate enough to be untouched by the flames still had smoke and particulates seeping into their vents and chimneys and into the cracks and pores of building materials.
“And unfortunately, what happens then is that a lot of materials in our homes act like a sponge,” said Joost de Gouw, a chemist at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “They soak up a lot of these VOCs into painted surfaces, into furniture, into all kinds of materials in our home.”
While experts agree that fire smoke is hazardous to health, the science is less clear about what levels of smoke pollutants are safe to live in after a fire. “Smoke does some strange chemistry – it is doing different things than what you would expect outdoors,” said Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric scientist at Colorado State University, who pivoted to researching indoor air quality to try and help fill the gaps in this science.
In the meantime, standing home survivors have no clear guidance for when it’s safe to return home. In that vacuum, some are choosing not to.
“I can’t even tell people what to do,” said Colleen Reid, a professor at CU Boulder who studies the human health impacts of wildfire smoke. “The problem is that a lot of these things that they found in the homes were volatile organic compounds, which haven’t been studied for health impacts much.”
While VOCs can enter a home directly from the smoke plume, they can also occur through off-gassing, when a solid material — like residue, plastic, paint — emits gas into the air. Soot, ash, char and other particulates that settle in a house can then release these gaseous compounds over time, degrading a home’s air quality. Long-term exposure to some VOCs can cause respiratory illness, kidney disease and cancer. “We don’t know for how long, and at what concentration, these VOCs are going to be off-gassed” in standing homes, Reid said.
Remediation companies theoretically make this problem moot by returning homes to a pre-fire condition — ridding them of residues and particulates as if they were never smoke damaged. The problem is there are no standards or regulations governing remediation. So when a homeowner gets an apparent greenlight to move back in, it’s not always clear why.
After finding char and soot in their homes after remediation, some Marshall Fire families hired Weecycle Environmental Consulting, a Lafayette-based environmental consulting firm, to assess the quality of the clean-up. Weecycle said it found a range of outcomes post-remediation — from homes in excellent condition to those barely cleaned at all.
Hayes, the county’s quality coordinator, said he reviewed air quality data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) inside standing homes in the months following the Marshall Fire and saw a wide range of results after the cleaners came through. In some cases, he said, cleaning led to the detection of higher concentrations of VOCs.
“We had a number of remediation firms coming in and doing different cleaning techniques in the homes, and what we were able to see was that some of those made conditions actually worse,” he said. “Some remediation techniques weren’t effective at all.”
Remediation companies generally follow protocol established by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), a nonprofit industry body for remediators. But the IICRC does not have published standards for wildfire smoke remediation. Those standards are in development. In the absence of a national guideline, the standard should be no presence of char or wildfire particulates, Weecycle said.
This lack of standards has exacerbated disputes and delays faced by many homeowners when filing insurance claims, according to Bach of United Policyholders.
“There isn’t enough consensus among industrial hygienists, restoration professionals and property owners over cleaning methods, testing and air quality standards,” Bach said. Homeowners are left feeling like the process is arbitrary and up to individual adjusters.
De Gouw, the CU Boulder chemist, is leading a research project focused on the Marshall Fire’s smoke impacts. His team of scientists deployed mass spectrometers (instruments that measure molecules in the air) inside standing homes within two to three weeks after the fire. De Gouw’s early samples indicated that smoke-filled homes contained harmful VOCs like benzene, a known carcinogen, at double the usual level inside a home.
“Right after the fire these compounds were enhanced inside homes more than you would usually see,” he said. “But three, four weeks later, it had come down to more normal levels.”
The fact that these compounds lingered indoors weeks after the fire surprised de Gouw. “I would have guessed that a lot of the components would have been gone in a day or so,” he said. “We saw them stick around for a month and so that really changes our understanding of how pollutants interact with our homes.”
Airborne compounds commonly detected after WUI fires, like methane and benzene, get diluted and over time, dissipate. The biggest concern after a few weeks, De Gouw said, is the particulates, including metals like iron, aluminum, copper and zinc, that have settled on surfaces. Those surfaces must be cleaned and the particulates removed with specialized vacuum cleaners and high quality filters. If they’re not, they could remain a hazard in the home indefinitely.
Because the Marshall Fire burned so many urban structures full of synthetic materials, it complicates the matter even further.
“We don’t know the long-term effects of normal fires,” said Reid. “So how can we say it for these fires, where there were so many more just highly toxic compounds that burned?”
In the weeks and months following the Marshall Fire, some owners of smoke-damaged homes started experiencing a constellation of health symptoms: headaches, fatigue, nosebleeds, a general sense of malaise. They noticed symptoms would start when they spent time in their home and subside after they left.
According to preliminary results of the ongoing Marshall Fire Unified Research Survey, released in August 2022, more than 40% of the 831 respondents who were living away from their smoke-damaged homes reported having health symptoms. The most common were itchy and watery eyes, sore throat, headache, dry cough, and a strange taste in the mouth. These results were gathered between May 12 and July 19.
The survey was carried out by the Marshall Fire Recovery & Resilience Working Group, an interdisciplinary team of researchers. Their findings echo what homeowners told us, as well as data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which shows fine particulates produced from a fire can cause itching eyes, nose and throat, and even lead to chronic heart and lung diseases.
A survivor from Louisville, who asked to remain anonymous because she is in negotiations with her insurance company, said she no longer lives in her house and hasn’t since Dec. 29. But she has experienced nosebleeds, a metallic taste in the mouth and itchy skin while visiting her house. Once, she had an asthma attack while there, something she had experienced only once before. “It’s a public health crisis nobody wants to talk about,” she said.
After the fire, she had her blood tested and found she had an elevated level of lead. Research has found that smoke from wildfires emits metals, such as lead and mercury, at similar levels to man-made sources like industrial activity and urban pollution.
Nate Rini, a survivor from Superior, who has not moved back into his house, said he gets a sore throat in the home even when wearing an N95 mask. Rini also had his blood tested for lead after the fire. He also had elevated levels. His wife, Katie Svoboda-Rini, has a nickel allergy and said she’s felt itchy while wearing clothes that have been washed multiple times since the fire. She has gotten hives from wearing certain items. It’s not clear whether the clothes were tested for nickel, but Svoboda-Rini said an industrial hygienist found lead, nickel and arsenic in their home.
After receiving the hygienist’s report, the couple threw away anything porous in their house – clothes, textiles, unsealed wood — out of fear the items had absorbed toxins from the smoke.
“I’d rather lose some money now than spend the rest of my life in an oncology unit,” Rini said.
We reached out to CRDN of Denver, a company several policyholders mentioned by name as a remediation provider. The business, a franchise, remediates personal property — textiles, electronics and art — and served about 200 homes after the fire. Brad Johnson, the company’s owner, said training for cleaning crews was “substantial” and includes “ongoing training of some kind weekly.” He said the company sent roughly 500 individual items of clothing to a lab in Maryland to look for remnants of soot or particulate contamination. “Without exception, the laboratory found no contamination on anything we sent them this year,” he wrote in an email.
Johnson said he had reviewed numerous test results related to the Marshall Fire that contained information about metals, VOCs, dioxins and other contaminants. “Unfortunately, the results of these tests can be misleading for a layperson,” he said. “Most tests showed the presence of some toxins, but with results below the minimum threshold for reporting. In a similar type of comparison, if you tested the dirt on the bottom of your shoes, you’d probably be shocked with the results.”
Many parts of the Rinis’ house, including drywall and insulation, have been removed per the recommendations of their industrial hygienist. “My house is a skeleton as we speak,” Rini said. But now being in the house “doesn’t make my eyes burn nearly as much,” he said.
Reid, the professor who studies the health impacts of wildfire smoke, and is involved in the Marshall Fire Unified Research Survey, said the survey continues gauging the prevalence of long-term physical and mental health symptoms among survivors. These, she said, are very different from the impacts of acute short-term exposure.
“The long-lived air pollution impacts of all of that getting into people’s homes and impregnating the drywall, and the furniture, and the rugs, and then off-gassing slowly, that’s a whole other matter,” she said. “And that’s what we’re trying to dive into with this.”
How exposure to lower concentrations of smoke over longer periods of time affects human health is “the million-dollar question,” said Luke Montrose, an environmental toxicologist at Colorado State University.
According to Courtney Welton-Mitchell, a social psychologist specializing in traumatic stress at the Colorado School of Public Health, it makes sense that some survivors are experiencing symptoms while others aren’t.
“Some people get a raging headache and feel nauseous in the presence of strong perfumes and other people don’t at all,” she said. “And so does that mean that the reality that that one person is experiencing is not valid? Or that it’s not real? That it’s psychosomatic?”
While anxiety can indeed be one of the “hundreds of variables” that determine whether or not a person experiences physical health symptoms — especially after a huge traumatic event — Welton-Mitchell emphasized that an anxiety-induced physical symptom is still a physical symptom, even if others aren’t experiencing it.
“The people right next door may be having some symptoms and ignoring them, or they may really not be having symptoms,” she said. “But that doesn’t invalidate the other person’s reality.”
Welton-Mitchell helped develop the mental health-focused pieces of the Marshall Fire Unified Research Survey. Although data is still preliminary, results of the survey seem to show that more frequent reminders of the fire — like unsolicited conversations, sights and smells, or the weather — are correlated with worse mental health.
When she first returned to her home on McKinley Avenue in Louisville after the fire, Summer Star Howard felt tightness in her chest.
“I just didn’t know if it was the anxiety of being back and around everything, or if it was actually physically what was in the air and like what we were breathing,” she said. “It was hard to tell because there was just so much sadness.”
After the fire, a woman whose daughter’s home was smoke-damaged contacted Reid. The daughter wanted to sell her home and get rid of everything inside of it. The mother wanted Reid’s advice and reassurance in the hope of dissuading her daughter. Reid said she couldn’t tell the woman that her daughter’s items were safe to clean, nor could she tell her that, if she did clean them, it would put her at ease.
“A lot of my research focuses on how these physical exposures and social exposures interact,” Reid said, “and the way that if somebody is paranoid about what might be in their kid’s stuffed animal — no matter how much you clean it — there’s going to be this nagging feeling that it’s not safe.”
At first glance, Tuesday evenings at the Louisville Recreation & Senior Center paint a picture of a healed community. The lobby bustles with damp-haired kids heading home from swim practice as middle-aged men arrive for a workout, sweat towels in hand. As they walk by, barely anyone glances into a brightly-lit, glass-walled conference room where a support group for Marshall Fire survivors meets once a week to swap insurance horror stories and share in collective exasperation.
“Our houses have Christmas lights on them,” said a group member one night in September, frustrated by the glacial pace of returning home.
According to the member, who asked to remain anonymous, her 9-year-old son tasted metal when he walked around the outside of the family’s still-empty home this past summer. She said the house is uninhabitable, even though it was remediated. But her insurance company said she and her family are “failing to cooperate” — a charge insurers have leveled against many of the standing home survivors when they pushed for more reimbursement or better remediation, they said.
“Now we’re afraid to fix anything because we need the proof that it sucks,” she said.
Amy Mitchell was 30 days post-breast cancer surgery when the fire struck. Her family is back in their home now, but Mitchell still felt irritation in her eyes and nose after the house was remediated. The cleaners, she said, were only going to wipe down the outside of their kitchen cabinet, not the dishes inside. A representative from her insurance company told her, “We come out and we smack the furniture and if it doesn’t smell like smoke, it’s fine.”
While her husband has started wearing his old clothes again, Mitchell’s are sitting in the garage in plastic bags from the cleaners. “I’d been saving a dress, and [my daughter] wanted it for prom,” Mitchell said. It’s still in one of the bags. She has no plans of opening them.
Jim and Pam Webster have lived in Boulder County since the 1970s. They bought their house in Louisville in 1992 so their mothers could live with them and their two children. For years, three generations lived together, filling their home with heirloom wood-carved furniture and wicker decorations from both sides of the family.
Now, the Websters’ house is missing most of what made it a home.
A few sofas and chairs sparsely occupy the large common rooms. Only one bedroom contains a bed frame with a mattress on it. Clothes and bedding remain in boxes, and brand-new cream carpet has been installed throughout. Jim and Pam have been living at the Residence Inn in North Boulder while working to get their home back to a condition that doesn’t make them feel sick.
If Pam spends too much time in the house during the day, she gets nosebleeds at night. “I was getting [them] from coming over here and being inside when the house was closed up.” She said she’s never had nosebleeds before “in my life.”
Pam spoke with a neighbor who also claimed they got bloody noses when they came to do work at their house. Jim added that he would also get “hoarseness in our throats.”
After the fire, they visited the disaster assistance center set up by the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) where they were told which remediation company their insurer preferred. After hiring the recommended company, the work on their home seemed thorough and extensive: new carpet, professionally cleaned clothes, and two visits from a remediation cleaning crew.
In September, we visited the Webster’s home along with a representative from Weecycle. Dust coated the top of door frames and clung to a hanging wicker basket. Black residue streaked a wall behind a bedroom door and lingered atop a living room fan. Ash and char wedged between window panes. Jim jury-rigged a cleaning wipe to a long pole, bent from his upstairs landing to get a sample of wildfire particulates from the fan.
According to the Websters, the remediation crew from ServPro, spent less than two days in the house. “When you look at the size of the house, there’s no way you could clean it sufficiently after all the smoke and ash in just a day and a half,” Jim said. According to Pam, remediation crews had to come back months later to re-clean things like their HVAC and air ducts.
We reached out to ServPro several times over email and phone for comment. We wanted to get a sense of what standards they followed when cleaning homes affected by the Marshall Fire. ServPro did not respond.
Weeks later, Weecycle test results found the presence of char on the main and upper levels, and on the ceilings. Weecycle recommended another cleaning, or painting all the walls and ceilings to seal in the residue. Pam said their insurance provider told the Websters that if they wanted an additional cleaning, they would have to pay for it themselves.
The Websters have spent long nights doing research and battling with insurers on how they can restore their house back to what it once was. They’re still living in a hotel covered by their insurance in two-week blocks. Every 13th day, they get word whether they can stay another two weeks.
In a small house near downtown Louisville, Summer Star Howard sits with her daughters, Sky and Eliza. Their dog, Queenie, sits in her lap. It’s October, nine months after the Marshall Fire, and Howard feels luckier than most individuals who were affected.
In Howard’s garage are boxes of remediated textiles and racks of children’s clothing, waiting to be moved into their new home outside Boulder. Eliza rummages through a box and pulls out a large stuffed toy that was salvaged after one of the two remediation attempts at their house. After seeing soot in some corners of the house after the first remediation, Howard requested a second. A plastic bag with a few household items sits near the garage door. “Apparently those items were not salvageable,” Howard said.
The girls’ fathers’ homes were also impacted by the fire. Sky’s father remediated his house near Fireside Elementary School and listed it for sale in late February. It sold within days. Eliza’s dad opted not to remediate his home near Coal Creek Elementary School, and he moved back in after local authorities deemed it safe.
“The kids and I want to be closer to nature,” Howard said of her upcoming move to the more forested Pine Brook Hills area of Boulder. While she and her daughters will arguably be closer to wildfire danger, Howard seemed unconcerned.
“There’s a part of me that would like to let this chapter go,” she said.
“And since we got through the Marshall Fire, we can get through anything.”