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This community was reeling from a mass shooting and several Covid-19 surges. Then a fire wiped out hundreds of homes

By Christina Maxouris, CNN

When Gurjeet Gill Dhanoa’s family moved from Canada nearly 23 years ago, they planned to operate the Tandoori Grill in Boulder County, Colorado, for just a few months. But the restaurant proved successful and they stayed, putting down roots in the community they now call home.

By the end of 2021, all they had left was that store.

For most of last year, the family had been adjusting to the changes the Covid-19 pandemic forced on the restaurant: navigating takeout orders instead of in-house diners, shutting down their lunch buffet and relying on federal financial aid to make ends meet.

The day Gill Dhanoa went to get her first Covid-19 vaccine — a Monday, when the restaurant is usually closed — the familiar plaza where their business is located flashed on the news. Their store sits across the street from a King Soopers, where a mass shooting was unfolding. The gunman killed 10 people — some shoppers, others employees — ranging from 20 to 65 years old.

In the days after the massacre, Gill Dhanoa’s family handed out food to the grieving crowds that cycled through the memorials.

Months later, when a vicious blaze charred thousands of acres in a matter of hours, the restaurant offered shelter to the employees who were forced to evacuate. Gill Dhanoa’s family homes — where she lived with her husband and teenage son, where her parents lived with her brother and a third, a rental home — were swallowed by the flames.

“These four walls are home right now,” she said, standing inside her restaurant.

In the ashes of her home, only a few items remained intact: a stack of buttons, a salt and pepper shaker, some coins, a horseshoe, a towel rack.

The Marshall Fire, fueled by powerful winds last Thursday, leaped into suburban neighborhoods across southern Boulder County and ravaged parts of Superior and Louisville, wiping out more than 1,000 homes.

The blaze came at the heels of a traumatic year for a place often referred to as the “Boulder Bubble,” a nod to the healthy, utopian-like lifestyle many residents take pride in and that some say is removed from surrounding realities.

But if anything, locals here say the tragedies they’ve experienced in the last year reflect growing national crises — including the global pandemic, a rise in gun violence and climate change — that no community is immune to, and which some residents say can be curbed or prevented.

“I wish these things weren’t happening. I’m devastated that they do happen. And I think we have had enough experience in our country to know that there are things that we can do to prevent them from happening,” said Kellie Brownlee, 29, a graduate instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Those things include measures to prevent further gun violence, boosting vaccination numbers to help curb further surges and tuning into climate action to better address recurring natural disasters like wildfires, Brownlee said.

“It’s heartbreaking when it comes into your community, but it also brings to light the fact that this will affect all of us at some point,” she said.

Sirens, again and again

Just a few blocks from the University of Colorado Boulder, Jeff Gamet said it was often sirens rushing by his home that tipped him off to the tragic events that took place in the community.

The freelance writer heard authorities rush by in early March when a party on nearby University Hill escalated to what Boulder police called a “riot,” involving hundreds of people violating Covid-19 restrictions. When officers arrived and attempted to break up the crowds, they were hit with bricks and rocks, police said. At least 10 people were arrested.

Days later, Gamet heard helicopters and police vehicles speed by again, this time heading to the scene of the shooting at the King Soopers store.

A mental health resource center was set up following the shooting for people impacted by the rampage, including victims’ families, store employees, first responders and others across the Boulder community. The center continues to offer mental health counseling, comfort dogs, art therapy, walking groups and acupuncture.

Gamet visited a memorial for the victims in the days after the shooting — a brief exception to a year he largely spent in his home, dodging the coronavirus so he wouldn’t pass it on to his immunocompromised parents. Looking around at the memorial after the shooting, he said he found vivid reminders of the other crisis.

“We’re all wearing masks,” Gamet said. “So we had that emotionally devastating incident and underlying it, we were still trying to deal with a pandemic.”

Amid another nationwide case surge and the rapid spread of the virus, Gamet found out last month he had come in contact with a known Covid-19 case in the community. His father tested positive but has since recovered.

Boulder County recently recorded a spike in new Covid-19 infections, according to county data. Roughly 83 people were hospitalized with the virus on January 7, up by more than 50% from two weeks earlier, the data shows.

Days after a Christmas spent in quarantine, Gamet said he found himself preparing to evacuate, in case the Marshall Fire came close.

“There’s been so much going on,” he said. “There were days where I’d be in the middle of my routine and I would just cry.”

Hoping for a brief respite, he attempted to order his favorite local snack: Boulder Popcorn. But the Heuston family, which ran the popular popcorn business out of their garage, lost their Louisville home in the Marshall Fire.

“That’s the first home we ever bought. We raised our kids in that home,” said Chris Heuston, who said her husband started the popcorn business with their daughter. All that’s left now of their home of 27 years, she said, “is just ashes in a concrete hole.”

Without any warning from local officials, the family watched the flames approach last week and had just minutes to grab some belongings, Heuston said. By the time she ran out of her home, which was filled with smoke and soot, she could see the fire in the field behind her home.

“I just wish I had 15 more minutes to grab a few more things that meant something,” she said. Safely sheltering at a friend’s house several miles away, she watched the flames swallow her home on live television, after a news crew set up cameras nearby.

‘We’re constantly in crisis mode’

The recent blaze and the rapid spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant have also stretched thin the local school system, which is combating teacher absences, navigating what a safe return to school should look like and helping staff and families who lost everything in the flames, said Randy Barber, chief communications officer for the Boulder Valley School District.

“It’s been overwhelming,” Barber said. “We’re constantly in crisis mode.”

The district reopened its doors after the winter break on Wednesday, Barber said, after getting the buildings in working condition again — including by purifying the smoke-filled air inside and restoring electricity. District officials, Barber added, have prioritized having students in class throughout the pandemic as a means of family support.

“It’s incredibly important for families that are going through such unthinkable things to have a place for students to be able to go that’s safe, that’s stable,” Barber added. “For there to be some level of normalcy in these families’ lives.”

At least 42 employees lost their homes in the Marshall Fire, Barber said. More than 480 families in the district have reported some kind of impact from the blaze. The district is coordinating to provide necessary resources to students who need them, including laptops, school supplies and counseling support.

Much of the fire damage was in and around Louisville and the town of Superior, where some former Boulder residents found refuge after a massive flood in 2013 that wiped out hundreds of homes, said Grace Peng, a scientist who used to live in Boulder County. Those areas were also where many used to look to for more affordable options than what was offered in the city of Boulder, which is now one of the most expensive areas in the nation.

But prices in recent years shot up in those areas as well, residents say, and the loss of structures means an even larger affordable housing crisis is on the way because of the housing shortage.

“There are a lot of people that have no place to live now and they can’t afford to get a place here. What are they going to do?” said Gamet, the freelance writer. “Are these people just going to move away and be gone from the community?”

A day-by-day recovery

After the series of traumatic events, what many in the community may be feeling is a “sense of groundlessness,” said Sona Dimidjian, a psychology professor and director of the Renée Crown Wellness Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Like the ground has been pulled out from under them,” Dimidjian said. “I think it’s important for people to know that’s part of experiencing a traumatic event like this.”

For the Gill family, the past year in Boulder County seems to point to a dangerous reality the nation is heading to, said Mandip Gill, Gurjeet’s brother.

“I think this last year, year and a half, has just been trending towards our new normal,” he said. “I don’t think any of us are equipped to handle what’s happening. And I think we’ve all learned that by the surge of (the) mental health crisis.”

Grappling with what happened will be a long term process for the community, Dimidjian said, and it’s important residents and those impacted know there are mental health services and counselors in the community that can offer guidance and support.

For many here, that process has only just begun.

Gamet said an unwavering routine and a large support system of friends have helped him cope. Humor and positivity are helping Gill Dhanoa combat the shock since losing her home. And a GoFundMe page has been set up for her family.

Heuston’s family spent the days after the blaze making family dinners, watching movies and assembling puzzles, hoping to revive a small sense of normalcy. Despite all the things lost, Heuston is thankful they’re all still here.

“One of the things the pandemic taught us too is how much our health and our families and our lives mean, and it’s finding some of that beauty in our world every day,” she said. “Because if not, how do you keep going?”

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