Bonnie’s Story: A Marshall Fire Survivor’s Recovery Journey

At 92, Bonnie has seen a lot in her lifetime, but nothing like the fire that took her Boulder County home on December 30, 2021. Bonnie is the oldest known survivor of the Marshall Fire. And survivor is the perfect word to describe her. But it hasn’t been easy.

Fortunately, Bonnie is supported by a caring community and family, especially her son and caregiver, David. In the days and weeks following the Marshall Fire, Sister Carmen Community Center was overwhelmed with generosity from near and far, and that support enabled us to help people like Bonnie.

With just minutes to evacuate her home of more than 70 years, Bonnie left with little more than the clothes on her back. Her cell phone and critical medical supplies were left behind. Sister Carmen was able to provide Bonnie with a donated iPhone and financial assistance for an oxygen concentrator, necessary adaptive devices for her temporary living situation, and a walker. We also provided gift cards for essential items (groceries, clothing, household goods, etc.) and restaurants, as well as food from our food bank.

Bonnie originally stayed with friends, but recently moved into Balfour’s assisted-living facility in Louisville while her home is being rebuilt. “It’s a nice, calming place for her to be now,” says David, who is navigating the complex rebuilding process for her. At this writing (late June 2022, six months post-fire), Bonnie’s property has been cleared, but that’s it.

Most people think everything will return to normal in a couple of years, but David looks to the Paradise Fire in California to set expectations for a more realistic recovery timeline. “It’s taken more like five to eight years there to recover, and that was before COVID and supply chain delays,” he adds.

And yet, returning to a normal routine is what Bonnie and David crave the most. As her caregiver, David used to go over twice a day to fix Bonnie meals, do some yardwork, and help with other tasks. Bonnie spent endless hours in her garden. “All that has stopped. The only way to fully recover is to get the house rebuilt, but that is a very stressful and time-consuming process — dealing with the insurance company, the county, architects and builders,” says David.

SCCC Advocate Lauren with Bonnie

He’s doing his best to cope with the situation and not get stressed out by it. “Because then everyone around you gets stressed out by your stress, and that’s not fair to anybody. For me, I just try to minimize exposing other people to what I’m going through because they can’t tell. You can’t tell if someone’s been a fire victim or not, or a medical victim or not, or a cancer victim or not. You just don’t know. Just be nice. That’s the goal.

A peace symbol (made by local artist, Mitch Levin, and pictured here with Lauren and Bonnie) is David’s reminder to himself and others to “just be nice” throughout the recovery process.

“Everyone just needs extra help right now. Fire victims are mentally stuck from operating in chaos mode,” David explains. “Recovery is a cycle of ups and downs. We need to create and celebrate small successes to give people hope.”

“Until there’s a house on the property, it’s still a very desolate place,” David says. “It’s emotional. You have to release that. It doesn’t do much for you.”

He and Bonnie try to appreciate the present:  Bonnie is being well cared for at Balfour and has reconnected with some neighbors from her past, while also forging new friendships through sharing meals and participating in activities at Balfour. David has also made some new friends during the process. They will carry their new friends with them as they continue on their journey of recovery.

David also stays positive by focusing on the things he can control, like taking care of himself and Bonnie — nourishing their bodies and souls with good food, physical fitness, spirituality, and doing good in the world.

“Signs of the Time:” rebuilding and healing will take a long time

And moving some dirt around also helps… “I got a tractor, and I’m moving dirt [on the property]. I do what I can and try to forget about the rest,” he says.

Bonnie agrees as she chimes in: “The best thing is not to think about it all the time, and to have a good son! I could not do this without David’s help.”

It will take years, but Bonnie looks forward to growing her own garden and spending time with family and friends once again in her own beloved home.

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