If the Marshall Fire spread panic as it burned, it spread hope as it smoldered.
As the fire licked the outlying limits of west Arvada and incinerated neighborhoods in ill-fated nearby zipcodes, hearts gasped, and the community rallied on a dime.
Arvada councilor Lauren Simpson recalled the evening the fire was so close that pre-evacuatoin orders were issued as the skyline glowed red.
“There was just sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said.
Simpson and fellow councilor Lisa Smith texted back and forth. By the time the pre-evacuation orders were lifted for Candelas and Laden Rock that night, the duo was devising ways to help.
On the morning of Dec. 31, knowing that water, clothing and hygiene items were the three things most needed after a disaster, Simpson and Smith posted on social media requesting donations be dropped off at Smith’s driveway.
“We were thinking we’d get a few items,” Simpson said. “Within three hours, Lisa’s two car garage was filled.” They realized despite the hundreds of families who lost everything, they had to cap the donation drive.
Responding to disasters is what Smith does. She is a fellowship program manager with Team Rubicon — a disaster response team that deploys military veteran volunteers to disasters throughout the world. As veterans, Smith explained, Team Rubicon volunteers have experience in war zones and responding to chaos. More than once, witnesses have described the Marshall Fire rubble of looking just like that: a war zone.
Deployed in her backyard on New Year’s Eve, the Rubicon volunteers would start by getting water, food and supplies to firefighters and responders on the ground.
Reporting to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, Smith saw towers of donations of bottled water. Between the donations in her garage and the outpouring of collections already being taken across the front range, the council women decided on a gift card drive and hopefully bridge the gap to replace what material donations don’t always cover.
The initiative was swiftly funneled through the Arvada Resiliency Task Force — created to provide to members of the community support and resources to navigate the pandemic.
On Jan. 3, gift card collection boxes were distributed to locations throughout the city, and the drive was shared on social media channels.
Simpson reached out to a short list of officials from other cities, asking them to join the drive. Wheat Ridge said yes. Denver and Edgewater got on board. Word spread. Northglenn and Thorton officials contacted her — they were in. Eventually Westminster, Broomfield, Golden and Centennial — a total of ten cities — were collecting gift cards, and places like Resolute Brewing Company put out collection boxes.
The patio of the brewing company on highway 72 overlooks the Candelas neighborhood to the west, and the Marshall Fire burn area to the north. Green astro turf still lies in heaps on the patio. Wind gusts ripped it up from the cement patio slab on Dec. 30. The 70 pound picnic tables were tipped over. Even before the fire started, the winds were so strong the decision was made the brewery would remain closed for the day.
In the days since, the staff at Resolute say the brewery has become a place for some deeper conversations. Beyond the football scores and idle chit chat, first responders are unwinding, replaying, and processing the fires they battled. There are stories of flames so intense the fire trucks were catching on fire, or accounts of taking cover from the inferno behind a Home Depot, only to look up and see the the building on fire, or the sounds of gas lines and propane grill tanks exploding, glass windows popping, and replaying videos taken on the scene, not shown on newscasts.
It’s clear the staff at Resolute feels their jobs go beyond just pouring pints.
“In all honesty, what we do even better is support the community that supports us,” said Jonny Eves, a beer tender for Resolute. “It’s why we love working in the industry.”
On Saturday afternoon, Simpson stopped by Resolute and began to tally the gift cards collected between their two locations. After spreading out a box of gift cards, she calculated nearly $1,500 raised by the Centennial location. The Arvada customers contributed over $4,000.
In addition to collecting gift cards, Resolute has committed to donating a dollar from every pint they sell for the month of January. Eves does some quick math and estimates they sell about 800 pints a week at the Arvada location.
Scores of business have taken their own initiatives to help. The Bluegrass Lounge is donating individual and family meals to those displaced. Red Silo Coffee is raising money through sales of their Mexico Chiapas coffee, donating 100 percent of the retail value of each bag sold in January to the Boulder County Wildfire Fund.
At Great Harvest Bread, the Arvada franchise owners coordinated with other nearby franchise locations and donated 10% of proceeds on Jan. 11, raising nearly $3,000.
“As a franchise as a whole, our mission is giving generously,” explained Aimee Charlton, who co-owns the Arvada cafe with her mother, Micki Nelson. “We hire and fire by it.”
Mike Ferretti has been the chairman and CEO of Great Harvest Bread for 21 years. Although it gives him goosebumps when he sees the company’s mission statement in action, he wasn’t surprised at how quickly the front range shops responded in the wake of the fire.
“This area is among the most generous and loving in the country. They live our mission statement,” he said. “‘Running fast to serve others’ is more than part of our customer service line. It’s broader than that. It’s a mindset of servitude and you see that in this group in spades.”
On Sunday afternoon, Simpson had collected 1,240 gift cards from more than 20 locations across four counties, raising a total of $62,173 within two weeks.
“It’s hard to describe how I feel. I feel grateful, and so appreciative of our community and the goodness in it,” Simpson wrote in a text “There’s an old Mr. Rodgers saying, ‘Look for the helpers.’ And in times like this we see that the helpers are all around us. People step up in ways big and small, and that’s how you know it’s all going to be OK.”