It has been one year since the most destructive fire in Colorado history burned more than 1,000 homes in less than 24 hours. Spread by winds that reached hurricane strength, the Marshall Fire burned 6,000 acres. Financial losses totaled more than $2 billion. In a matter of days after the fires, JEWISHcolorado had raised $969,000 from hundreds of donors, partnering with Jewish Family Service to distribute the funds to those in need. During this crisis, there were also quiet acts of individual generosity from people who vowed to do what they could to help. This is the shared Marshall Fire experience of Meryl Suissa, Liz Morrison, and JEWISHcolorado staff member Jason Oruch, condensed from our conversation with them.
Liz: We had just moved here the end of September, and we were still unpacking boxes and just getting used to our new life in Colorado. We were driving around like a normal day, and when we came home, we noticed the sky was changing colors. It was very strange.
Meryl: On December 30th, I was sitting in my living room in Lakewood, and the winds were awful. I heard about the fires through my social media. News stations were saying that because of the wind, embers were becoming airborne and just hitting houses randomly, so it wasn’t spreading just by grass. I looked at my husband, and I said, “I have to do something more than donating money. This is going to be really bad.”
Liz: Coming from New York City, we had never experienced wildfires. Then, the sky started turning more like a black color. The winds were crazy. We had 15 minutes to pack as much as we could in the car and get our two kids in the car. As we were leaving, there was ash falling from the sky. It was just so smokey. And then I started thinking, where is this fire? Are we going to just die in this car?
Meryl: I thought with natural disasters that FEMA and the Red Cross always stepped in and made everyone whole. And about five years before this disaster, I did my research and learned that’s not what happens. Not at all, not even close. Many people lose everything, and that’s the end of it. And so if I could just be a source of comfort, a source of connection, that was my goal.
Meryl: I created a Facebook group named Marshall Fire Community. Families joined and helpers joined. I also built a website for the group. We got up to 6,500 members within about three months. People offered what they had, and families asked for what they needed. That Facebook group became a hub, and it became the place for connection and community outreach. It was incredible.
Liz: My husband and I were thinking, “This is going to be terrible.” We were positive our house had burned down at that point. We were in complete shock. As it turned out, the house next to us caught on fire, so our house was next. But the wind shifted a little bit, and the fire department was there so our house was saved.
Liz: I just remember walking into my house and seeing this gigantic pile of stuff up to the ceiling and the smoke remediation company saying to me, “This is all stuff that’s going in the garbage. All your kids’ stuff is gone.” Stuffed animals, toys, games, Barbies, I mean every one of their things was gone.
Meryl: Liz and I connected because she had responded to the form asking, “If you’re part of the Jewish community, and you need help, I can connect you to JEWISHcolorado.” JEWISHcolorado also put a massive amount of funding into Jewish Family Service.
Liz: I’m not typically the person who asks for help. I’m a mental health therapist, so I’m usually the one who is helping. But I think my brain at that point had just totally shut down because of everything that was going on. Something made me message Meryl privately and say, “We’re affected by the fires, and you seem to know a lot about resources here in Colorado.” She told me to make a list [of what we needed], and that Amazon wish list was like a lifeline for me.
Meryl: We were right about at the point where I had a ton of wish lists and
not as much support anymore, and I didn’t quite know what to do. And here comes Adriane [Greenberg] saying Jason [Oruch, JEWISHcolorado staffer] wants to hear about what you’re doing with these wish lists. Before I knew it, he sent me an email saying, “We have filled all the wish lists.” That included Liz’s and 18 other families.
Jason Oruch: As soon as I heard about it from Adriane, I knew JEWISHcolorado needed to help. After we decided to step in to support these families, I was the person going through the wish lists and purchasing items. Some families wanted basic essentials like a coffee maker or a pot to boil pasta. I can remember one family wanted a Disney character waffle maker because it was their daughter’s favorite item. A lot of these families had children, and it meant so much to me to give them items that brought joy to the children.
Each list meant purchasing more than 30 items. We fulfilled all 19 lists
within 48 hours. This was a case where we didn’t just raise the funds, but we were able to personally direct it. We did it quietly without seeking any attention. It was one of my proudest moments working at JEWISHcolorado because we were able to use the funds we raised to help people in our community start on their journey back to normal.
Liz: JEWISHcolorado was amazing. I remember writing an email thanking everybody. I hope I didn’t miss anybody because it was such kindness. I can’t say enough good things about Meryl. She and her team gave my children every possible thing that would allow them to be distracted from all of the things that they had lost because of this fire. That was the best gift she could give to them and to me and my husband.
Meryl: I think the biggest thing that this has taught me is the power of community. Even if one person starts something, you can’t do anything without the community. My connections to JEWISHcolorado and YAD made me so much stronger so I could help these families in more ways than I can count.
Liz: I didn’t even realize before we moved here that there was such a Jewish population. And I’m so happy that there is because we are involved Jewishly. I felt a little bit like an outsider when all this first happened, and now I feel like we’ve been so included that I want to be here and be helpful too because we can give back now.
Meryl: You help those in need. I think that’s huge in Judaism. We support others, we love others, and we’re all about community. When one person’s hurting, we’re there. When one person’s down on their luck, we step up. And that’s what you do as a Jewish individual.