CU Boulder anthropology professor, students collaborate with local museum to preserve narratives from the devastating Marshall Fire
Around 11 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2021, a wildfire ignited in dry grass near Marshall Road and Colo. 93 in Boulder County—and several months later, inspired a novel collaboration between the University of Colorado Boulder and a local history museum.
Driven by winds gusting up to 115 mph—more than 150% faster than “hurricane force” winds, according to the National Weather Service—the fire blew up almost immediately, sending choking clouds of smoke in a vast, eastward plume.
Forty minutes after firefighters first arrived, thousands of residents in Superior, Louisville, Broomfield and nearby areas were ordered to evacuate. By the time a snowstorm had doused the blaze some 36 hours later, it had roared through more than 6,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 structures, mostly homes, killed two and cost more than a half a billion dollars to fight, making it the most destructive fire in Colorado history.
In the wake of the disaster, devastated staff at the Louisville Historical Museum, some of whom had been forced to evacuate, wondered how they might help a shocked and reeling community understand and recover from the trauma.
“We are museum people, we have an oral-history program, and the answer was, one way we can help the community is with stories,” says Jason Hogstad, volunteer services museum associate.
Honoring the museum’s mission to share and preserve the stories and lives that “make up the heart and character of Louisville,” the staff created the Marshall Fire Story Project to facilitate ways for people affected by the fire in any way to share their experiences for the historical record. In February, the museum held the first on-site workshop and launched an online platform to gather residents’ stories.
Not long after, something unexpected happened: students at the University of Colorado Boulder stumbled upon the Marshall Fire project while seeking information about air quality in the wake of the fire for Assistant Professor Kate Goldfarb’s advanced practicing anthropology course.
“I’m developing a research project about community experiences of air quality, ‘Knowing Air,’” says Goldfarb, a Boulder native who returned to her hometown to teach at CU Boulder in 2015. “With the Marshall Fire, air quality and potential health impacts of dust and burned materials were an immediate concern.”
The students contacted Hogstad and the museum and asked if they could collaborate in some way. The museum shared some data, but the students were eager for a more hands-on experience, particularly speaking with those affected by the fire, which also impacted the CU Boulder community, with one former regent losing their home of four decades.
“It was the students who really piloted this effort,” Goldfarb says. “I trusted them and was impressed by their high regard for Jason and the Story Project.”
Goldfarb contacted Hogstad (whom she’d never met) to ask if he’d be interested in putting together a proposal for a $5,000 CU Boulder Community Outreach and Engagement Grant to support the project with student help.
Even though the request for proposals had an eight-day turn-around, the museum enthusiastically jumped in. The grant was awarded in June. One of Goldfarb’s practicing anthropology students, anthropology and linguistics major Emily Reynolds, will continue work on the project, along with incoming anthropology master’s student Lucas Rozell. The students will assist in “whatever needs to be done, transcription, video processing, mobile story-collecting” or anything else, Goldfarb says.
“The project’s purpose is threefold,” according to the grant application: “To create a community archive useable by community and academic researchers, provide a space for affected individuals to share their story (a critical part of processing trauma), and offer the entire community a place to have their voice heard and added to the historical record. By the end of the project, we hope to have all audio and video stories processed and ready for use by researchers.
We are museum people, we have an oral-history program, and the answer was, one way we can help the community is with stories.
The project will also capture hundreds of GoFundMe campaigns created in response to the fire.
These campaigns are a critical community-created source—most include a narrative of affected individuals and needs, updates documenting ongoing financial hardship and experiences in the first few months after the fire and provide insight into the role of community crowdsourced funding in the ongoing recovery.”
Goldfarb began focusing on trauma and storytelling as an undergraduate anthropology and English major at Rice University, where she wrote a thesis on the subject.
“I’ve had a long interest in narrative and storytelling, making meaning out of disruptive situations,” she says.
During graduate school at the University of Chicago, Goldfarb conducted ethnographic research in Japan, where she worked with children and alumni of the country’s child-welfare system to understand how people make sense of disruption and interpersonal trauma in their lives. After graduate school, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Program on U.S.-Japan Relations at Harvard University and conducted research with mental health professionals focused on attachment and child welfare.
“People really do make sense of traumatic experiences through talking, narrativizing the past and present and what they think can be their futures,” Goldfarb says. “But it’s not just a cognitive and narrative focus. Creativity is a way of tapping into some things they wouldn’t be able to articulate and express themselves through art and other mediums.”
Hogstad, Goldfarb and the students hope that the grant will help spread the word to encourage anyone affected by the fire—in any way, even as a witness from thousands of miles away—to contribute their story.
So far, the team has observed that people may have a hard time “claiming” their own experience of the fire. It’s easy to feel that others have had a harder time or could share a more noteworthy account, Goldfarb says. But she and Hogstad emphasize that the fire was a community experience, with all stories welcome.
“There’s no bounds on what your story is,” Hogstad says. “People can tell a story about the 24 hours after the fire hit, or two months later, working with FEMA, trying to navigate being underinsured, or four months on, living in a new place.”
As of mid-June, the project had collected 35 stories, with on-site sessions scheduled throughout the summer. Mobile sessions are planned for the fall, where the team will travel to affected communities to ease burdens of participation. The project will continue at least through the anniversary of the fire, Hogstad and Goldfarb say.
While the project is more open-ended than research pursuing a set of specific questions, Hogstad believes it will be no less valuable than quantitative work in the wake of the disaster.
“It creates an archive that can be used across disciplines, across fields in the future. Almost all of the great research into the fire is on the science side, so to have something coming from social science and the humanities is pretty unusual at this stage,” he says.
“I’m blown away by all the support for the project from Kate, the students, from CU. … I’ve worked in a history-related field for 15 years and never been part of something that feels as worthwhile.”
Anyone interested in learning more about the Marshall Fire Story Project is encouraged to reach out to Jason Hogstad, Kate Goldfarb, or the Louisville Historical Museum.