LOUISVILLE, Colo. — Bryan Giles, who fled with his cat, Chloe, finds himself replaying their harrowing escape from the blaze. The Manz family is scouring the ruins of their home for family heirlooms. Nan Boultbee and Lex Kell are still waiting for their street to reopen to catch a glimpse of the four-bedroom house they had lived in for five years, now torched.
In this part of the drought-stricken West, wildfires come more often now. They sweep through neighborhoods and often retreat as quickly as they came, leaving behind new landscapes of suburban rubble — this one, after the devastating blaze that swept through the area around Boulder, Colo., softened under a sudden snow.
But like the coals that were still glowing days later under the frost, the extent of what was lost and the challenge of what comes next is only now becoming apparent to those who lived in the 991 homes that were lost in one of the worst wildfires in Colorado history.
On Wednesday, officials reported the first confirmed death from the blaze, announcing that they had found the partial remains of an adult about a half-mile from an area being investigated as a possible source of the fire. One other person remained missing.
“We all thought we were coming back,” said Boultbee, 66, a software programmer who escaped with her wife, Kell, also 66. Now she finds herself waking up in the middle of the night, asking, “Why didn’t I grab this or that?”
They make their way down the ruined streets, searching for fragments from what was once their living room. They pore over rental ads on the Internet, recalibrating their options in a housing market that had been tight and expensive even before the disaster. They talk about new definitions of what is safe and what is not, what should be considered important, who counts.
At a shelter for evacuees, Giles held all he has left: a white plastic bag with a change of clothes, a backpack, and the cat carrier holding Chloe.
“I have to keep myself in check and stay strong for her,” Giles, 29, said of the 4-year-old tortoiseshell mix who has been at his side almost constantly since the blaze Dec. 30. “She’s kind of my emotional anchor. I don’t know if I would have been able to handle this if we were separated.”
Giles, who works as a private security guard, spotted the first plume of white smoke across the brittle grasses near his home in the town of Superior shortly before 11 a.m. that day. His subdivision, where he lived in a five-bedroom home with a roommate, was enveloped by smoke within a half-hour.
“It was so black, I couldn’t even see across the street,” he said. He scrambled to grab his roommate’s two dogs, as well as Chloe, before flagging a ride away from the flames.
After that, a friend at work gave him a bicycle. Other friends are trying to pull together enough money for his first and last months’ rent on a new place to live.
For the moment, though, Giles returns each night to the Red Cross shelter where he and Chloe are sleeping. He has had time there to reflect on what happened but has not come up with any explanation for it.
“There’s only one question I would ask,” Giles said. “Why me? Why now?”
Hours after fleeing from the blaze, Andy Manz, 44, got a glimpse of its devastation. He and several homeowners “incognitoed it” back into their neighborhood on foot that night, against evacuation orders. Their way was lit by headlamps and the still-raging flames.
“Our whole ridge was on fire,” said Manz, who copublishes Boulder Lifestyle magazine with his wife, Katie. “Our next-door neighbor’s was totally engulfed in flames. Our house was already burned to the ground.”
Theirs was one of dozens of houses in the upscale Spanish Hills subdivision, from rustic 1950s ranch-style properties to contemporary dream homes, that were leveled to smoldering foundations and soot-scarred brick chimneys.
The Manzes were at home when the fire leapt across US 36, a nearby highway. They were able to gather their four children and rescue dog before making their escape.
Katie Manz said it was their first holiday season with an 18-foot Christmas tree that reached all the way to the living room ceiling.
It was gone. The pearls handed down from her great-grandmother, they were somewhere in the ashes. So were the paintings.
“The art was not really valuable, but it was valuable to us, because it was mostly by our kids,” she said.
She held her daughter Farrah, and they recalled the last thing they could remember about living there: It was the two of them, sitting over there on what was the couch, cuddling.
“We still have the memory,” Manz said, “even though the room is gone.”
Manz said she had been struck by something their oldest child, August, 11, had said.
“He said, ‘It’s kind of cool to lose everything. We can do anything now,’” Manz recounted. She realized he was right. “It’s changing our perspective on material things,” she said.
The family has been staying at the temporarily vacant home of friends in Boulder. They hope to rent one of the homes in Spanish Hills that survived the blaze until they can rebuild — though the insurance, they are realizing, will not cover all the costs.
It could take years.
Andy Manz has been steering his Ford pickup through the snow-packed streets, looking to see whose homes were spared. “Every time I see a house that’s still standing, I’m just glad there’s one more house that made it,” he said.
Yet the fire followed no logic; it left no explanations.
“I believe in some divine intervention,” he said. “But I don’t understand it.”