This community was hit by a mass shooting and several Covid-19 climbs.  Then a fire wiped out hundreds of homes

This community was hit by a mass shooting and several Covid-19 climbs. Then a fire wiped out hundreds of homes

By Christina Maxouris, CNN

When Gurjeet Gill Dhanoa’s family moved from Canada almost 23 years ago, they planned to run Tandoori Grill in Boulder County, Colorado, for just a few months. But the restaurant proved to be a success, and they stayed and took root in the community they now call home.

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

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

The day Gill Dhanoa went to get her first Covid-19 vaccine – a Monday when the restaurant is normally closed – the familiar spot where their business is located flashed on the news. Their store is across the street from a King Soopers, where a mass shooting took place. The gunman killed 10 people – some shoppers, other employees – ranging from 20 to 65 years old.

In the days following the massacre, Gill Dhanoa’s family distributed food to the grieving crowds who cycled through the memorials.

Months later, when an evil fire charred thousands of acres in a matter of hours, the restaurant offered shelter to the staff, who were forced to evacuate. Gill Dhanoa’s family home – where she lived with her husband and teenage son, where her parents lived with her brother and a third, a rental home – was engulfed in flames.

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

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

The Marshall fire, driven by strong winds last Thursday, erupted into suburban neighborhoods across southern Boulder County, ravaging parts of Superior and Louisville, wiping out more than 1,000 homes.

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

But if anything, locals here say the tragedies they have experienced over the past year reflect growing national crises – including the global pandemic, an increase in gun violence and climate change – to which no society is immune, and to which some residents say can be slowed down or prevented.

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

These things include measures to prevent further gun violence, increase vaccination rates to help curb further increases and tune in to climate action to better address recurring natural disasters such as forest fires, Brownlee said.

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

Sirens, over and over again

Just a few blocks from the University of Colorado Boulder, Jeff Gamet said it was often sirens whizzing past his home that tipped him off about the tragic events taking place in the community.

The freelance writer heard authorities rush past in early March as 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 tried to break up the crowds, they were hit with bricks and stones, police said. At least 10 people were arrested.

Days later, Gamet heard helicopters and police cars driving past again, this time on their way to the scene of the shooting at the King Soopers store.

Following the shooting, a mental health resource center was set up for people affected by the vandalism, including the families of the victims, store employees, first aiders and others in the Boulder community. The center continues to offer mental health counseling, comfort dogs, art therapy, walking groups and acupuncture.

Gamet visited a memorial to the victims in the days after the shooting – a brief exception from a year he largely spent in his home, avoiding coronavirus so he would not pass it on to his immunocompromised parents. Looking around the memorial after the shooting, he said he found vivid reminders of the second crisis.

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

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

Boulder County has recently recorded an increase in new Covid-19 infections, according to county data. About 83 people were hospitalized with the virus on January 7, an increase of more than 50% from two weeks earlier, the data show.

Days after a Christmas spent in quarantine, Gamet said he was preparing to evacuate if the Marshall fire came close.

“So much has happened,” he said. “There were days when I was in the middle of my routine and I just cried.”

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

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

Without any warning from local officials, the family saw the flames approaching last week and had only minutes to grab some belongings, Heuston said. As 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 minutes more to grab a few more things that mattered,” she said. In the safe shelter of a friend’s house several miles away, she saw the flames swallow her home on live TV after a news team set up cameras nearby.

‘We are constantly in crisis’

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

“It’s been overwhelming,” Barber said. “We are constantly in a state of crisis.”

The district reopened its doors after the winter break on Wednesday, Barber said, after getting the buildings back in working order – including cleaning the smoky air inside and restoring electricity. District officials, Barber added, have prioritized having students in the classroom throughout the pandemic as a means of family support.

“It’s incredibly important for families going through such unthinkable things to have a place where students can go that is safe, stable,” Barber added. “For there to be a level of normality in the lives of these families.”

At least 42 employees lost their homes in the Marshall fire, Barber said. More than 480 families in the district have reported some form of impact from the fire. The district coordinates to provide the 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 city of Superior, where some former Boulder residents took 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. These areas were also where many used to look for more affordable options than what was offered in the town of Boulder, which is now one of the most expensive areas in the nation.

But prices in recent years have also risen in these areas, residents say, and the loss of structures means an even bigger affordable housing crisis is on the way due to the housing shortage.

“There are a lot of people who have no place to live now and they can’t afford to get a place here. What do they want to do?” said Gamet, the freelance writer. “Should these people just move away and disappear from society?”

A day by day recovery

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

“As the earth has been pulled out from under them,” Dimidjian said. “I think it’s important for people to know that it’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 that the nation is heading toward, said Mandip Gill, Gurjeet’s brother.

“I think the last year, a year and a half, has just been heading towards our new normal,” he said. “I do not think any of us are equipped to deal with what is happening. And I think we have all learned it from the wave of (the) mental crisis. “

Struggling with what happened will be a long-term process for the community, Dimidjian said, and it is important that residents and those affected know that there are mental health services and counselors in the community who 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 help Gill Dhanoa fight the shock since she lost her home. And a GoFundMe page has been created for her family.

The Houston family used the days after the flame to make family dinners, watch movies and collect puzzles in hopes of reviving a small sense of normalcy. Despite all the lost things, Heuston is grateful that they are all still here.

“One of the things the pandemic also taught us is how much our health and our families and our lives matter, and that is finding some of that beauty in our world every day,” she said. “Because if not, how do you proceed then?”

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