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This week we are so happy to share a blog from Holly Taylor, a Coldwell Banker Realtor in the Greater Boulder/Denver area and Gifted-Talented Teacher for Boulder Valley School District. She is one of the most honest and transparent Realtors and kindest all around person you will ever meet. And while this particular story isn't about being prepared to buy or sell a home per se or how to become a more gifted or talented student, it is still an experience about being prepared for anything, especially one of the most frightening wildfires that we experienced here in Colorado last fall. It seemed somewhat timely to share it this particular week after the Front Range got slammed with #snowmaggedon2021, an event that dumped about 2 feet of desperately needed precipitation on us. It didn't end up being anywhere near the amount they originally predicted but still...being organized for any natural disaster is something we all need to plan for no matter where we live.
At 12:30 PM on October 17, 2020, my phone rang. It was my massage therapist, calling me on a Saturday afternoon. I wondered if I forgot to show up for an appointment.
“I’m not sure exactly where your house is but I’m at the gas station in Lyons, looking to the west, and there is a plume of smoke coming from where I think you live,” she said.
I went out on the deck, with the phone attached to my ear and looked out at the smoke-filled sky that had been raining ash for weeks.
“I don’t see any smoke, but thanks for thinking of me,” I calmly told her.
As I hung up, I turned around, gazed past the homes above mine.
My jaw dropped...
Smoke raged from the southwest, black clouds billowing overhead. Simultaneously, my phone rang, one call after another, checking to see if my husband, Steve, and I were okay. Steve was on his way back from a morning hike. He called me, as well, but not about the crazy circus in the sky.
“Fire engines just raced past my car. Can you see a fire?”
I shot a video of what I was witnessing. All we could say repeatedly was “Holy Sh*t!”
Strangely enough, we were expecting friends over for an early dinner. I continued to set the socially distanced patio table, placing flowers in vases, dishes and silverware and as well as rocks on the tablecloth to prevent the high wind gusts from blowing it all down the mountain before placing the uncooked chicken and fixings in the fridge.
Denial is a defense mechanism we all use so before anyone judges me, take a moment to recall a time in your life when you used this helpful escape. The reality is you never know how you’ll react in a situation like this. In my imagination, I knew I’d grab photos, videos, my husband, and my dog, not necessarily in that order.
Here, when the threat was real, I was setting a table and saving my raw chicken.
“Perhaps the fire will be extinguished by our brave firefighters.”
“Perhaps it will just burn itself out.”
“Maybe it’s heading in another direction.”
The thoughts streaming through my brain as reality terrified me.
Denial only lasts so long, and the spell was broken when our friends who were on their way over were stopped by police, telling them the road was closed. They called to let us know why they couldn’t make it. I was relieved since my focus was on preparing for their visit and I needed to focus on the next steps.
Looking back, I think I checked out. I wasn’t thinking straight and my brain couldn’t process what was happening. I calmly brought the place settings back in the kitchen. I mentioned to Steve that I think we should start packing important papers and sentimental items just in case we need to leave.
I think Steve entered the world of denial with me. He kept reassuring me we should wait until we hear from Boulder County’s emergency call line to do anything. We decided to take our dog for a walk to the end of our street to see if we could see any flames. We live on a dead-end street with only a few homes, some not occupied year-round, so we couldn’t check how others were reacting. Just as we got to the top of our driveway, a Boulder County Sherriff’s SUV sped its way up our hill, screeching to a halt when he pulled up next to us.
“You need to evacuate! Pack your things and leave.”
That was it!
Steve and I needed someone to snap us out of denial and the policeman succeeded. We ran down the driveway and into our house, dividing up to grab what we wanted to save. We packed our cars with our treasured items. Steve grabbed his coin collection while I whisked framed photos off our walls. Some choices were easy to find...
my jewelry box
my voter’s ballot
a jacket since the sweltering heat we were living in was supposed to turn to freezing weather in a few days
When I opened the garage to grab my bins of pictures, videos, and sentimental items, I froze. As I scanned the packed in space, I searched for treasures from when my children were babies, essays written in a file cabinet packed with ancient medical records and expired warranties.
Things I felt were near and dear to my heart were packed like sardines between piles of empty gift bags, stacks of unused wood, dusty camping equipment, and unidentified boxes from past lives. I hardly knew where to begin and time was of the essence. I grabbed as many storage bins as I could, dumping them into my car haphazardly as I started to panic.
A lifetime of gathered items deemed irrelevant.
When I went back in the house to do a last-minute scan of my stuff, I grabbed two more things: my file folder with our birth certificates and passports, and a necklace with clay figures of my kids from a Hallmark many years ago which I threw around my neck. As I put it over my head, I thought about what a silly choice it was considering it was draped around a framed portrait of my children. The necklace was something I stopped noticing a long time ago but you can’t always predict what is comforting in an emergency.
Looking from our living room out to our view, my husband and I sighed and said goodbye to our nest, knowing it may no longer be there when the fire was eventually contained. It was surreal, to say the least.
In separate cars, we drove down the mountain, through our town, and onto the highway, only to be greeted by a line of traffic, including pickup trucks with horse-trailers filled to capacity and campers from interrupted vacations.
When we eventually arrived at my daughter’s house in Denver, I finally had a chance to catch my breath. As I started describing the fright-filled events of the day, it suddenly dawned on me of the meaningful stuff I didn’t bring...
I forgot our wills.
I left Poor Pitiful Pearl, the doll that kept me company when I was seven during hospital visits to see my mother who had cancer.
I envisioned my great-grandmother’s Czechoslovakian china, stacked in the dry bar in the dining room.
I ruminated about all the sentimental items and vital papers I forgot to bring.
Simultaneously, I vowed to get rid of the extra, distracting, meaningless items that filled every corner of my garage and office, if the fire didn’t get rid of it first. Everyone, including myself, reminded me that the most important thing is that everyone got out in time and just as this website is named, it’s...just...stuff.
This is absolutely true, of course. But what occurred to me is some of our stuff reminds us of small and large moments of our life. It’s a walk through our history and I like the reminders when life’s challenges happen. I find comfort in them.
With this in mind, I made myself a deal. If our house survives the fire, I will prioritize what is important to me and treat it accordingly. I will remove all the un-needed, un-used, and meaningless clutter that gets in the way. That’s “the stuff” that takes up too much space in my house and serves as a distraction.
I’m forever grateful that my house survived the Calwood Fire and as promised, I’m keeping my word. Organizing and minimizing is not an overnight process but I focus on a stack at a time. With fire season only a few months away, or even possibly sooner with the lack of moisture so far this year, I’m ramping up on completing my goal. I understand this process requires maintenance in the future. Like a diet, you can’t forget all the healthy habits you’ve acquired once you’ve hit your optimal weight.
As a realtor, I help people leave their homes where memories are made and help others find new places to plant seeds for their future. There’s a “letting go” and “prioritizing” in this process, just like figuring out what you’d take in case of an emergency and how you want to live your life.
By the way, did I mention I remembered to take the chicken dinner to my daughter’s house? #Priorities 😀
Holly Taylor is both a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Boulder, CO as well a Gifted Talented Teacher for Boulder Valley School District.