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In the new Modern West podcast series, a family loses their beloved home in Colorado’s Marshall Fire

The Modern West podcast just released the trailer for its new series. “The Burn Scar” tells the story of podcast producer Ariel Lavery, how her parents were evacuated and how her family lost their home in the Marshall Fire, an urban grassfire that burned into the suburbs of Boulder in the middle of winter in 2021. The Modern West’s host Melodie Edwards sat down with Ariel to talk about why she decided to produce a podcast about this devastating event, and starts by asking what made the Marshall Fire so unusual.

Editor’s note: This interview was edited lightly for clarity and brevity. 

Ariel Lavery: This fire was the very first time we had ever seen an urban wildfire in Colorado. Colorado had never seen anything like this before. People who'd lived here for a long time were well acquainted with wildfire, I think, for a lot of people sort of in concept only, or just from images that they saw through the media. And suddenly, there was a wildfire that was burning through suburban neighborhoods in a very heavily populated area of the Front Range.

So that was the first thing that made this fire so remarkable. And seeing those images on the television screens – I saw it from my hotel room in the middle of Kansas – was also just incredibly arresting. The media grabbed onto it right away because these images were so remarkable and disturbing to see. These were homes in an affluent area, large homes, people who had never imagined that they would be experiencing something like this.

Melodie Edwards: In episode one, your parents are evacuating and you're in the hotel [in Missouri] and kind of stuck there because of a freak ice storm. I wonder if you can talk just a little bit about that combination, and what that felt like to your family, and in that moment. Because it does seem just like such a crazy coincidence.

AL: I can't say, because I haven't looked at the science about that ice storm, if that was directly connected to human-caused climate change the way that I discuss in the podcast that the Marshall Fire was. But I can say that there was a realization, the day after we all woke up and we sort of knew that my parents' house was gone – they were staying in a friend's basement in Boulder – we knew that they were now refugees.

My husband and I had a conversation not long after that about the weather that was moving through where we were in Columbia, Missouri, that we should probably stay put because if we were going to get on the road in that moment, we might be facing some severe weather that could put us at further risk. And so I was thinking, ‘Okay, my parents are staying in their friend's basement in Boulder. We are facing the choice of having to stay in this hotel room.’ And although we were safe, it definitely brought my mind to an imagining of the future, and thinking, ‘Is this kind of what I need to prepare for to be experiencing more and more? Is this what it's going to feel like to be a climate refugee?’

I know that people all over the world are going to have different experiences of climate change. But in this country, we're probably going to be seeing people having to live out of their cars, be more mobile. Be more specific in their choices about where they live, not because it's a pretty area, or because they like the people that are there, but they're going to have to be thinking about what the weather conditions and what the seasonal conditions are going to be there.

ME: I think one of the parts of the series that affected me the most is when you talk about being homesick for a place that is gone. I wonder if you can just talk a little bit about that feeling, and also how it relates to kind of the larger themes of the whole series.

AL: The feeling that you're talking about is called solastalgia and it was a term that was coined by Glenn Albrecht who's an Australian philosopher. He came up with this term, thinking a lot about a primary example of people in Appalachia. Small communities in Appalachia who witnessed their mountaintops destroyed for mining, the strip mining that was going on there, which also provided their main source of income eventually. Those communities were sort of reorganized around the industry, but it doesn't mean that those people were any less sad or affected to see their environments destroyed that way.

I had what I think is solastalgia when I visited the site with my mom four months after the fire in April. For the first time I flew back out there because I wanted to help my parents. I also just felt like I needed to see the site, I needed to see the neighborhood. As I say in the series, I'm one of those people who needs to see the dead body for it to be real. I noticed when I was on the site that the house finches were still there, singing their song. Our neighborhood and the city of Lewisville is in the flight path of [Denver International Airport] traffic so we would always hear the jet planes roaring overhead. That was still there. It was a really strange feeling because I felt like I was in a place I'd never seen before. The smell, I've never smelled anything like that. But then I suddenly recognized where I was because of the sounds, and that was a really strange feeling. And it wasn't until maybe a year later that I came across the term solastalgia. And I immediately was brought back to that moment and thinking, ‘This is describing what that experience is, it's gotta be.’ And I think it's an important term to understand and to start using in our common parlance because probably more people are going to be experiencing things like this, as the climate changes so quickly.

ME: What are some of the hard decisions that your family has been forced to make as you've been recovering from losing your home in this fire?

AL: The first decision my parents had to make was where they were going to live. They had pretty good coverage with their insurance so they were able to get a payout without having to fill out an entire inventory so they were able to start living on that payout. Their insurance also gave them living allowances. But they ended up retreating to and staying with friends in Boulder in their basement for the first couple of nights. And then they relocated to another of my mom's friends’. And my mom was thinking, ‘Well, maybe we can just stay at this person's house, and we can pay her rent and just live here.’ Because I think when something like this happens, suddenly your whole world is upside down. And you're questioning, ‘Should we even be living in this landscape?’ I mean, clearly it's not safe. So the question of where to live was the biggest decision they had to make. My parents are elderly. My dad has Lewy body dementia so my mom is his caretaker. She started going back and forth about whether or not they should move into senior living. There was an apartment that was available in a senior housing facility. She was really not keen on having to move in there. Eventually, they decided to move in because of my dad's condition. And Mom thought it would probably be better for him to be in that community in a place where he would likely be safer, and they would be taken care of in terms of meals and cleaning help and things like that. It wasn't until sometime later that my mom made the decision to rebuild.

ME: I wonder just to wrap up, if you could talk a little bit about just how you made this podcast, you started collecting the audio for it. Right away as soon as the fire happened. Can you talk just a little bit about the process of making a podcast?

AL: I had actually been recording Zoom conversations with my parents for a while because when my dad was first diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, I thought I needed to document. I just really liked documenting things. So I was already recording Zoom audio. And then when this fire happened, those recordings were happening, we had several that were scheduled regularly. And when I was out there in April, I brought my Zoom recorder with me there. Again, it was just this impulse of needing to record. I had no concept that I was going to be pitching this as a story idea to any podcast, I just needed to record this. I needed to somehow remember the feelings of visiting the site and being there. And it was on one of the days – I was taking a shower in Colorado in April after I had visited the site the first time – that I thought ‘I really should probably pitch this.’ And I immediately thought about you and I thought about the Modern West. And the rest is history. I suppose once you know you're producing a series then you just record everything you possibly can.

To find out what happens next for Ariel’s family, catch the first episodecoming to you every other week starting November 15. 

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.

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