First they fled, now they grieve: How parents are surviving the Colorado wildfires

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  • Katie Cullen
    Scottish racing cyclist

Kate Cullen stood on her balcony watching a plume of smoke in the distance on Dec. 30. Her family was used to seeing smoke rise from the fires in the distant mountains, and feeling hurricane-force winds roll across the grasslands - all from the safety of their Colorado house, set a few miles west of the Boulder foothills. But her instinct told her there was something sinister about this plume.

A line of fire was rushing over the mesa toward their close-knit neighborhood in Superior. The fire had sparked less than an hour ago three miles away. It would rush on to destroy more than 1,000 homes and decimate many neighborhoods.

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Among the residents who had to flee with little or nothing were many children. For their caregivers, running for their lives was not a parenting challenge they had anticipated, much less explaining that precious stuffed animals, rock collections and, worse, pets were lost to the fire, and that they would not be going back home. In between navigating their own losses, fears and questions about home insurance, the parents who fled the fire still had to be parents.

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When Kate Cullen saw the growing smoke plume, she texted a group of her neighbors, "GET READY TO LEAVE," and alerted her husband. She opened her front door and saw two firetrucks and a firefighter attaching a hose in front of her house. "Get out!" he shouted. There was a burning house two doors down.

Related video: Flights over Colorado capture bird's-eye view of fires

Kate ran right back in, grabbed her daughter Caroline, 3, and one of their 8-month-old twins and "threw them in the car." Her husband ran out with another twin and the two dogs. There was no time for car seats and baby items that just an hour ago she couldn't have imagined surviving without. Worse, there was no time to find their beloved cats.

"I don't even care about my house or my possessions; I would give anything to have saved those cats. But it just wasn't possible because we were never told to evacuate," she says.

Kate sat shoeless in the back seat devoid of car seats, hugging her babies, Clark and Jack. The boys were clad in only diapers as her 200-pound husband tried desperately to close the rear hatch door of the suburban and the driver door. "It was absolutely impossible," says Bill Cullen, who described the colossal force of the winds exacerbated by the fire. With all the ash, debris and smoke already pouring into the car, Bill decided to start driving through the engulfed neighborhood with the doors open.

Neighbor Christy Kozeliski, who had already evacuated, called Kate to make sure they were out and knew where to go. "We had neighbors that didn't know they were in danger until they saw their house was on fire," Christy says.

About an hour later, neighbors' phones in Louisville, only two miles away, started blowing up. Lara Ackerman was home cleaning and organizing closets when she started getting texts from her neighbor Tawnya Somauroo, who was alerting nearby neighbors about the encroaching fire. "I don't mean to sound like a freak, but I'm packing a getaway bag just in case we have to leave," she texted. Tawnya and her husband then raced out of their driveway to pick up their twins at a sitter's home.

Lara told her daughters to each fill a bag. Emma, 11, grabbed her new Christmas presents and their two pet bunnies, and Daisy, 9, grabbed some stuffed animals and trinkets. Her husband, Trevor, grabbed his two guitars, and Lara grabbed her work computer. "We only took one of our two cars because I didn't want to clog up the roads. Besides, I thought we'd be back," Lara says. She realized they wouldn't be returning home as she drove away at 1:30 p.m. and saw flames two blocks away.

Heather Szucs was with her boyfriend, driving home to Colorado from Idaho where she had been to clean out the home of her recently deceased father. Her kids were staying with her ex-husband, out of range of the fire, but her 75-year-old mother, with whom she lived, began frantically calling about a reported grass fire growing closer.

Heather sat in the car glued to a harried exchange of group texts and her doorbell camera. At 1:30 p.m. she watched her mother drive away. At 2:09 she saw her neighbor's chicken coop catch fire. And at 2:52 she got a text from the city to evacuate. By that time, the entire neighborhood was on fire, and she was still hundreds of miles away.

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When Tawnya and her husband, Kahlil, settled into their hotel room, they sat their 4-year-olds on the bed and told them their only possessions were what they had in that room. Kahlil says his experience with long covid has shaped their parenting style. "We're honest about what's happening, our own shortcomings, what we do know and what we don't know."

After 45 minutes of inconsolable crying, their daughter Aubree asked about her rock collection. "We told them rocks don't burn, so maybe the rocks are OK," says Kahlil. "They seemed massively relieved I had thought to grab their pillows and blankets," says Tawnya, who has since given each twin her own laundry basket to store her possessions until they can find a home again.

During the drive out of town, Melissa and Mark Lockman tried to shield their kids from their emotions as a flood of phone calls and text messages poured in. "It's so hard as a parent because we're going through our own process. . . . I definitely have moments of feeling like, I want my mom," Melissa says.

Once they reached their hotel, the Lockmans told their kids the fire had taken their home - the home where they had planted a plum tree to celebrate their son's birth, and a maple tree to mark the baby they'd lost. That night, they all slept in the same bed. "We told them, 'We're going to get through this,'" Melissa says.

Upon learning the fire had destroyed her neighborhood, Heather Szucs's daughter Zoe, 6, began crying and asked not about the cats lost in the fire, but her stuffed animal, Olivia. "Is Olivia OK?" she had asked. She was not, replied Heather, who has since been searching for a similar Olivia online.

Christy Kozeliski didn't even remember her 11-year-old daughter Brynn's hamster Tater Tot until she was ordering tater tots at Sonic a few hours after evacuating. She knew she had to say something comforting, quickly. "We talked about how with smoke a lot of times the animal will go to sleep well before the fire gets there," Christy says.

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As kids do, they are each processing grief in different ways and at different times.

After reaching a friend's home the day of the fire, Bill Cullen says their 3-year-old daughter Caroline laughed whenever he and his wife would start crying. "My big girl bed burned in the fire, and my backpack is in pieces," she tells visitors matter-of-factly.

Within 48 hours of the fire, Daisy, the girl whose sister saved their pet bunnies, drew what she hopes her new bedroom will look like.

Zora, 10, screams every time she remembers something lost in the fire. "My home was so safe and so sturdy. It was so normal. This is not normal. I don't want this," she wailed to her mother, Melissa Lockman. Her brother Zachary, 6, doesn't want to hear the word "fire." He wants to pretend they're on vacation.

"We are trying to make space for everyone's strategy dealing with grief," says Melissa, a licensed clinical social worker trained in trauma healing. She focuses on offering her children statements that foster security, such as, "No matter what your big feelings are, I'm not leaving you," instead of statements that leave a child feeling anxious like, "I don't know if insurance is going to cover this."

The tens of thousands who evacuated but didn't lose their home, like the McCormacks, are also facing intrusive emotions. Prompted by a "free writing" activity at school four days after the fire, Kelly McCormack's 7-year-old daughter Camilla drew a frowning face and a heart and wrote the words "anxious," "worried," "scared" and "sad."

"The scariest part of all is that I just don't know how to reassure her it won't happen again because I have so many of the same fears right now," says Kelly, who could see the flames from her home.

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Like many parents, Melissa is dealing with feelings of regret. "I've been saying over and over, 'It's not my fault. It's not my fault that I didn't pick up Zora's little baby blanket on the foot of her bed that I hoped that she would have forever. It's not my fault that there were embers flying 100 miles an hour.'"

Bill says he's trying to live in the moment, like his daughter does, rather than worry about the future: "I'm actually finding it easier to just put my phone down and find peace in small things."

Lara Ackerman keeps thinking of her family's camping trip to the Grand Canyon in October, when every day they would go to the general store to pick up something they'd forgotten to bring. "It's like we're on this weird camping trip where it's like, oh yeah, I forgot I don't have floss. Oh yeah, I forgot I didn't bring a nail clipper."

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In less than a week, more than $25 million has been raised to support the victims of the fire. That doesn't even include the flood of clothing donations.

The stress of the fire caused nursing mom Kate Cullen's breast milk production to drop from 30 ounces to zero in four days. The day she went dry, she received a month and a half's worth of breast milk from other young mothers in the area.

Christy's son Ryan, 9, was overjoyed when a family friend passed down a pair of flannel pajama pants and he found a new stocking cap at a donation center, a hat that looked like one he lost in the fire. Christy says she realizes what matters most to her kids is their identity and comfort. "We don't need to replace all of the things. We just wait and see what we really miss and go from there."

Christy says she is overwhelmed by the generosity of her community. "I'm hearing from people around the world - people I haven't talked to since college. It has restored every ounce of faith in humanity that anyone may not have had lately."

Hundreds of evacuated families have not yet returned to their intact homes due to smoke damage. Those parents are navigating their children's questions and fears. In a moment of play with her cat dollhouse, one 4-year-old told her mother that her cat family was nervous to go home. "What will help?" her mother asked. "That they are all together," replied the little girl. She asked her mom to make a sign: "Only family and helpers can come through this gate."

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