Housing

One Year After the Marshall Fire: Kupfner Family Still Recovering and Battling Xcel

George, Lisa, Creek, George Albert and Jared Kupfner lost their home during the Marshall Fire.
George, Lisa, Creek, George Albert and Jared Kupfner lost their home during the Marshall Fire. Lisa Kupfner
When the Marshall Fire ravaged Louisville, Superior and other parts of Boulder County on December 30, 2021, it destroyed more than a thousand homes. One family, the Kupfners, accounted for four of those losses, with every home on their land completely burned by the fire.

In 1968, the family had purchased five acres of land at the far end of West Coal Creek Drive in Superior to  serve as the location for its business, Superior Maintenance, and homes for multiple family members. At the time of the fire, brothers George, Phil and Rocky Kupfner lived there with their families, along with one renter and a friend, Dave Freeman.

On the morning of the fire, George’s son, George Albert Kupfner, drove in from his home in Longmont to work at Superior Maintenance, and when he arrived, he told the family of smoke he’d seen along the way. George and George Albert both drove toward Marshall Lake to check it out, and they immediately saw that the fire was on the other side of the lake. They returned home and got out the fire hoses just in case. Superior Maintenance contracts with the Town of Superior, so the family just happened to have industrial fire hoses on hand, along with access to fire hydrants in case a water main broke and they needed to clear roads afterward.

“The wind shifted direction within three to five minutes, and it came at the west-southwest corner,” George Albert remembers.

Suddenly, those hoses represented their only hope to save their homes and the rest of their business equipment.

“I was going to cut a fire line,” George says. “By that time was too late. … George [Albert] said that we made a mistake going up there to look at smoke. We should have just got our stuff out.”

Both Georges — along with Phil, Phil’s son and their friend Freeman — fought the fire as best they could, saving a fence and trees on the property by wetting them with the hose, but in the end, they had to leave when they ran out of water and the debris from the fire had burned holes in their hoses. There was nothing more they could do.

Meanwhile, George’s wife, Lisa, their younger son, Jared, and George Albert’s son, Creek, had already fled when the fire started moving in. Lisa originally planned to go to a nearby hotel and get a room to wait out the fire — grabbing only a men’s hooded flannel, a scarf, cell phones, charger cables, their puppy and its supplies, some clothes and toys for Creek, the articles of incorporation and checkbook for the business, and a few Christmas bags that still contained new clothing.

“By then I was in a state of panic,” she says. “There was smoke coming into my house.”

She says it was difficult to see, and it felt like she was driving through a veil of fog. Once she discovered that hotels and motels in Superior weren’t an option, she headed to the Superior Community Center, where people were evacuating. There, Lisa, Jared and Creek waited, reuniting with George and George Albert later that afternoon.

“When they pulled up to the community center, it looked like firefighters,” Lisa says. “They were totally covered in water and dirt and debris. I was very much concerned they were coughing.” She also noticed moisture on both of their faces. “I couldn't tell was if it was tears or if it was water,” she recalls.

Phil's lungs were scorched so badly that he was in intensive care for over a week. Freeman was injured, too. Rocky made it out of the fire safely, but has since died of cancer.

All of the houses on the property had burned, along with their shop, many of their tools, several Conex shipping containers they used for storage, and their vintage car collection. They also lost the various trucks, snow plows and loaders they had used for their business, including George's favorite loader, a type of tractor. Much of the equipment that was lost was newer; the older equipment was unharmed because the fire jumped randomly across the property. The family got that older equipment working as quickly as they could: Snow was coming, and they needed to plow the roads.

“The Kupfners are contractors with the town and have served for many years in this role, providing excellent service to our residents,” says Kevin Colón, communications and community engagement manager for the Town of Superior. “They did lose equipment during the fire but were still able to come through, clearing streets when the snow fell shortly after the fire. Residents rave about the great job they always do on our roads.”

The family confesses that focusing on the people in their hometown helped them push through.

“We didn't have time to mourn, or to weep, or really take account,” George Albert says. “There was a town relying on us to go to work, and we went to work.”

The Kupfners plowed the roads and helped repair the town’s pumphouse that had burned in the fire. Then they started to take stock of their own losses.

Lisa managed to secure George’s medicines from a Kaiser Permanente facility when she finally evacuated to Longmont, where George Albert lived and where their branch of the family has lived since. Their son Jared has Troyer Syndrome, a neurological disorder in the family of hereditary spastic paraplegia, meaning that his brain did not fully develop and he sometimes uses a wheelchair to get around. One particularly tough loss is that the family had outfitted their home with an accessible shower and ramps.

“Every photo that we had is just gone,” George Albert says. “The biggest thing that I’ve had to come to grips with is everything from when I was a child — baseball gloves, baseball uniforms, stuff that I kept for my kids like my football jersey from when I was in high school, childhood memories, and T-shirts and clothes and toys — all burned up.”

The family are hunters and also had several mounted deer heads from successful hunting trips displayed on their walls.

“I'll have those memories because they were with my dad and my cousin and my uncle, but I'll never be able to tell stories to my son or to my grandkids, because they're not there,” George Albert says of the mounts. George laments that he probably won’t hunt like that again in his life.

Lisa also lost much of her family history. She had Bibles that had been passed down through generations, photos collected from the 1800s through modern day of members of her family, and a diary written by a "great-great" ancestor. She lost her jewelry, too, including her wedding ring.

“That's the one thing that saddens me, because other people found their wedding rings or some of their jewelry,” she says. “They were able to take items to get cleaned and repaired, and I didn't find a single item.”

She is Jared’s primary caregiver and didn’t have much time to search through the soot in the aftermath of the fire. When she did get the chance to look, she found some pottery and Jared’s class ring from high school. She plans to get George Albert’s class ring remade at some point, along with her wedding ring.

Jared had lots of sports and country music memorabilia, including a football signed by former Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas, who died in December 2021, and a guitar signed by Ted Nugent that the family won in an auction at a National Rifle Association banquet. Although Jared is working on rebuilding his collection, it won’t be the same.

He wasn’t the only collector in the family, though: George collected rare Camaros and other cars, all of which were destroyed.

“I had a car that had my name on it,” Lisa says. “I only got to drive it one time. That was my collectible car, and the car that George bought for us. That breaks my heart. I don't know if we'll live long enough to ever get that replaced.”

George says there isn’t a price for what they lost, but just in equipment and belongings alone, he estimates the loss at about $20 million dollars.

“There's some things that are priceless that you're never getting back,” he says. “What bothers me is [Public Service Company of Colorado] denying it had anything to do with this. That's totally wrong.”

The Kupfner family believes Public Service Company of Colorado, which is part of Xcel Energy, is responsible for the extent of the damage of the fire because the company owns the lot behind theirs and placed wood chips there for years, which George had long protested because he contends it is illegal to store wood chips in an area that is zoned for agriculture, and he believes the wood chips, which are horticultural, contributed to the fire's spread.

Now he’s part of a class-action lawsuit to hold Xcel accountable for the fire. In the suit, which was filed on March 31, the Kupfners claim that Xcel Energy was a substantial cause and negligent party in the Marshall Fire. The Kupfners continue to pursue the case with a status hearing on January 13, 2023.

James Avery of Denver Injury Law is the attorney for the plaintiffs, along with Schack Law Group, which has experience in fire litigation in California.

According to the lawsuit, witnesses observed sparks and the ignition of a fire in the vicinity of Xcel power lines. “On the morning of December 30th, 2021, a witness videotaped sparks flying out of a malfunctioning power line near the Shell gas station on 1805 South Foothills Highway in the Eldorado Springs neighborhood of Boulder, Colorado,” the lawsuit says. “The sparks from the power line ignited a ground fire that came to be known as the ‘Marshall Fire.’”

At the original date of filing, the Kupfners were anonymous, but now they’re ready to share.

“I can't call it an accident,” George says. “This fire was nothing but negligence.”

He sees the wood chips behind his house as an example of the company’s carelessness in pursuit of profit.

“The cause of the fire is still under investigation, and we’re working with authorities,” Xcel spokesperson Michelle Aguayo told Westword in April. “Our own investigation shows that our equipment in the area of the fire was properly maintained and inspected, consistent with our high standards, and we have not seen evidence that our equipment ignited the fire.”

In a December 15 statement, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said it would likely conclude the investigation into the fire in early 2023.

Meanwhile, the Kupfners are in the process of recovering. Lisa says it has been gratifying and humbling to have friends help them through the process.

“You go your whole life not expecting something like this to ever happen,” she says. “Never in a million years do you think the Marshall Fire situation is going to happen to you. I'm still feeling displaced, and I have days where I struggle.”

The family is waiting to rebuild, having heard that the process to apply is extremely difficult, and they also are facing a potential requirement to rezone the lot because it technically has been operating under a legal non-conforming grandfathered use clause for the past forty years. George says Phil has spent thousands of dollars trying to secure the necessary permits to rebuild his house.

Additionally, George was diagnosed with colon cancer in April, after he went to the doctor for a blockage and wound up undergoing a seven-hour surgery followed by a stay in the ICU. He is undergoing chemotherapy now and has another surgery scheduled in March 2023.

Lisa wants to wait for George to be in remission to start rebuilding, but the family does want to rebuild. Their history belongs to the lot where their homes used to be, though they’re thankful that they’ve been able to create a new home in Longmont for the time being.

“We're pretty gritty people when it comes down to survival,” George Albert says. “I've spent thirty-some years here of riding on dirt bikes and go-karts and shooting BB guns at pop cans and getting into mischief and learning it’s okay to get oily and dirty, and I want that same experience for my little boy.”

Despite their grit, it hasn’t been easy to heal, especially emotionally. On the Fourth of July, a neighbor accidentally set a fire with fireworks. Lisa says she panicked and had to go see for herself that the fire was completely put out. When controlled burns have happened nearby, the smell of the smoke brings up memories of the Marshall Fire, and she worries until it’s gone.

“I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy,” she says. “It's a scar that isn't going to go away. You can never get over it. You can never be made whole. Really, you'll never be who you were prior to the Marshall Fire, because this is something that continues to hang over your head.”

Still, she plans to host a party in the summer for all those who have helped them through the last year. Regardless of whether it’s in Longmont or at the site of their old home, she will be grateful her family is together.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire

Latest Stories