Taylor Korn spent most of Thursday afternoon in tears as she struggled to come to terms with the fact that everything she once owned was now gone. Among the items lost were two urns with her parents' ashes, her birth certificate, irreplaceable family photos along with all of her clothes and personal belongings. Also inside the home were two puppies, just 6 months old, who couldn't be saved.
The Marshall Fire, which erupted in Boulder County, Colo., late that morning, took it all.
Korn, a 28-year-old Boulder native, was working as a bartender in Boulder when a friend sent her a video of smoke filling skies to the south of the city. Initially, she was unfazed. Having spent her entire life in Colorado, she was used to the news of a fire breaking out.
About an hour later, her landlord called.
"You need to get out of the house," the landlord told her.
Korn immediately thought of her two puppies, Gerti and Gidget, who were at home in their crates 6 miles away. Upon realizing that her two roommates weren't there to save the dogs, Korn jumped in her car and began to race home.
Before you keep reading ...
MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.
On any other day, the drive would have taken about 10 minutes. But the highway was closed, forcing her to take a series of back roads, ultimately coming across one dead end after another.
"I just kept driving around trying to find a way I could get maybe close enough to walk there and get my dogs and bring them back to the car. It was just impossible," Korn said. She tried calling neighbors, but to no avail. Even her landlord who lived nearby couldn't reach the house. "I had to go back to work and just wait."
She spent the rest of the day crying behind the bar, her eyes fixated on the TV as she watched the fire grow. Korn thought about how if the fire had only happened the day before, when she was off work and at home, she could have saved the dogs. When her shift at the bar came to an end at 5 p.m., her landlord called again, this time in tears.
The house was gone.
"It was surreal. It didn't feel like it was my life," Korn said. "It felt like there was no way, absolutely no way, that that could have happened."
Growing up in Boulder, Korn was no stranger to wildfires. She knew friends growing up who had lost their homes. Now it had happened to her. And fires typically took place in the summer, never in winter, she said.
She had only been in the house for a little over a year and a half, but it felt like home. She shared the house with two friends she had known from high school and it was often filled with friends. They had considered throwing a New Year's Eve party there, until the latest coronavirus surge canceled their plans.
Korn doesn't have a family. Her mother died five years ago and her father and grandmother died over the course of a month this past summer. All she had left, she explained, were her friends, her dogs and her rental house. And the fire took two of those from her.
Korn's home was one of about 1,000 structures lost to the fire — including more than 500 in Louisville. Colorado officials said the fire burned an estimated 6,000 acres and engulfed entire subdivisions.
At least three people were missing as of Saturday, according to the Boulder County sheriff.
Officials first thought the fire may have been started by an downed electrical wire, a Boulder Office of Emergency Management notice said, but the power company has found no downed lines in the area. As of Saturday, the cause of the fire was still unknown and the investigation was ongoing.
The fire spread incredibly fast, fueled by high winds with gusts over 100 mph. Gov. Jared Polis called the fire a "disaster in fast motion," allowing residents only a few minutes to gather their belongings before evacuating.
As for Korn, she only has what she wore to work Thursday morning: one pair of jeans, a dirty pair of shoes and a work shirt, along with her wallet, cellphone and her car.
Friends and coworkers approached her, offering everything from clothes and bedding to groceries and cash. But she's hesitant to accept their help.
"It's hard for me to take things from people. I can't ask for help ... and then people are just handing me cash and I don't want it," she said. "I'm so proud of how far I've come in this life with literally no help, but it's hard."
She went to a Salvation Army thrift shop Friday morning to buy new clothes to wear to work. The store was empty and uncomfortably quiet. She walked the aisles unsure about where to start. The feeling was surreal as she purchased the first shirt of the rest of her life. Heartbroken and without a home, she is unsure what the new year will bring.
Korn admits the gravity of her situation hasn't fully set in. It's hard for her to grasp the concept of having nothing. She's staying with her childhood friend, Claire Gritton, in an apartment in Boulder until she can find a place to stay.
Gritton has teamed up with two of Korn's friends, Sara Salakari and Sam Swoboda, to raise funds via a GoFundMe page for Korn to start over. They know Korn is reluctant to accept the help, but they're also aware how critical the funds will be to her ability to start over.
"[Korn] doesn't accept help very much, so we are kind of having to force that on her," Gritton said. "She's been there for everyone else and she deserves just as much as everything that she has given to other people."
So far, the three friends have managed to raise over $13,000 for Korn to start over. The funds will help her find a new place to live and replace basic necessities; to start over.
Korn is one of 35,000 people that had to be evacuated, according to the Boulder County Community Foundation. The burn area is still closed to residents who are waiting for the go-ahead from first responders who are working to secure the scene. More information about the fire and where to send donations for victims can be found at the Boulder Office of Emergency Management website.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.