Some of the untold impacts of the Marshall Fire are coming into sharper focus with the work of seven graduate students from University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
As part of an immersive journalism course created by science journalist Hillary Rosner and Boulder Reporting Lab publisher Stacy Feldman, students Anthony Albidrez, Ali Branscombe, Amber Elise Carlson, Josh Couture, Helen Driesen, Elise Ertl and Zain Iqbal became members of a pop-up newsroom. They teamed up with KUNC investigative reporter Robyn Vincent to bring their work to a larger audience. Their reporting uncovers the stories of standing homeowners — people whose homes are still standing but suffered smoke damage. Nearly a year after the fire, some of these residents still do not feel safe returning home.
Boulder Reporting Lab began exploring some of the long-term impacts last January, reporting on water concerns. But Feldman learned that CU Boulder researchers across many fields — some fire survivors themselves — were mobilizing. These researchers were coming together to study multiple contamination and health effects from the fire.
Their work reflected how the Marshall Fire had functioned for the past year as a sort of living lab for the vast research community that exists in Boulder. The graduate-level journalism course aimed to explore the health impacts of the fire through the lens of this research.
But quickly, the team honed in on a very specific story they wanted to tell — about homeowners whose houses had been hit by smoke but not fire. The story really started to unfold, said Albidrez, when the students began attending meetings with these Marshall Fire survivors, homeowners stuck in a limbo they could never have imagined. These homeowners had thought they were the lucky ones.
Ertl said it was during one of those initial meetings that the students felt they had to tell this story. “The first time that I think we really hit on something was when we were lucky enough to go to these homeowners meetings in Louisville, and we got to sit down and listen to these people’s personal stories,” she said. “And you could just hear the stress in their voices. And we got to hear about their physical health, their mental health, their surrounding environment and all of their worries. And I think once we heard their personal stories, it just was like, wow, this is really big.”
Couture recalls sitting in on a meeting, early on, with the Colorado Division of Insurance, where attendees vented about “how much struggle they’ve had to deal with through all this,” he said. “And it just kind of validated that this is a real problem and I think people in the community should know about it.”
Launching into action, the team contacted dozens of scientists at CU Boulder and across the Front Range to learn what can happen to a house when it’s within a smoke plume, and about gaps in the scientific understanding of wildland-urban interface fires, and about how anxiety can impact physical health. They researched remediation protocols and learned about a lack of national guidelines on what levels of pollutants it’s safe to live with after a wildland urban fire — and for how long. This has left homeowners with scant expert information about whether to return to their homes.
In total, the students conducted more than 60 interviews over the course of three months.
Branscombe remembers an interview she conducted with Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University. Farmer discussed the gaps in the science, the dearth of research on indoor air quality and the health impacts of smoke damage. “A challenge for me was writing around a hole at the core of this is, a gaping research hole that that the scientists are converging on,” Branscombe said.
Once they’d done months of reporting, the next hurdle was figuring out how seven reporters could collectively write one story. “The challenge was trying to just think about how we’re going to put together so much information,” recalled Ertl. “I mean, generally, in a story, you have one person who is the main focus, or just a couple of people. But in this case, it’s an entire community that you’re trying to capture. You’re trying to capture personal stories, mental health issues, physical health and the environment.”
As the students dug deeper into the experiences of these victims, some confronted the emotional toll that journalists reporting on their own communities endure as they wade through tragedy and loss to bring a story to light.
“The Marshall Fire is such a traumatic and real thing for us and many people in our community,” Couture said. “As a journalist, figuring out how to balance the emotions, the anger, the sadness that I’m feeling while also trying to write about it in an ethical and truthful way was definitely a challenge.”
Many of the standing homeowners the students spoke with lamented the lack of resources and established protocols in place for people in their situation. Still, they also acknowledged the responsiveness of community members and local government as they have worked to make their voices heard. Iqbal said Boulder County residents are in a unique position and reporting on this story provides a cautionary tale for many other communities.
“Many of the sources that we spoke with have access to resources and are part of a local community in Boulder County that can help them navigate this catastrophic event,” he said. “And yet there were still a lot of roadblocks that we witnessed in our reporting.”
The subtext here, Iqbal said, is that when this happens to a community that has access to fewer resources and support, the costs could be far greater.
And that’s an important takeaway from this reporting, said Albidrez, because these sorts of fires are only going to increase in frequency. “The wildfire risk at the wildland-urban interface could be the new norm we all have to live with.”