Boulder, Colo – “It’s like a blur.”
Mark Smith, a 1996 Cooper High School graduate whose family has lived in Colorado for less than a year, was still on Monday feeling the loss of his home in a fire that destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses here last week.
“The day it first happened, I refer to it as Day Zero because it was all just fog,” he told the Reporter News late Monday afternoon. “What just happened? He spent the first day full of tears. The second day was half tears, half tears, half smile. And then we get a little better every day.”
“It’s a strange feeling. But, man, we’ve been surrounded by so many great people. There are so many good people in this world, and we’re experiencing that right now.”
Homeless are the Smith family – Mark’s father, his wife and high school sweetheart Michelle (Gibbs), and their three children: his daughter and high school sweetheart McKenna, 17; Ibn Micah, 13; And his daughter, Miley Kay, 4, stays at the same university donor home that Smith hosted before his family arrived last year.
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The investigation into the massive fire in the suburbs continued Monday. More than 1,000 homes and businesses have been lost in Boulder County, with two people reported missing, according to USA TODAY.
The fire broke out on a windy Thursday, and was originally blamed on faulty power lines. However, a specific initiation site is being investigated.
Snowfall helped firefighters contain the blaze, but hot spots remained on Monday, according to news reports.
Their home, their stuff
Smith is the quarterback coach at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He just completed his first season, arriving in late January 2021. His family joined him last spring break.
They live in South Boulder, their home supports scenic Davidson Mesa.
“It’s a Boulder address,” he said, but they’re close to Louisville, Colorado.
The family was not at home, and they left it safely but with one car and the clothes they were wearing.
They’ve lost family mementos — “things of sentimental value you know you won’t get back,” he said — and even Christmas presents that opened five days ago.
“We didn’t have a toothbrush, or a hairbrush, or a stick of deodorant, or another pair of underwear,” Smith said. “I mean nothing.”
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The family had gone around 11am for pizza and were checking out at Sam’s Club at about 1pm when McKenna got a text from a friend in the neighborhood saying they were being evacuated – are you home?
No, they were in the store – what’s going on?
“We had no idea what was going on,” he said. The friend said there was a fire.
Remember Smith High Winds. The immediate danger was the fire that broke out in the direction of their neighborhood.
The family tried to get home, with Michelle Smith devising a quick plan to get back on the road. They will get the other two cars and necessities.
His wife described their game plan: “We’ll collect these and be right back.”
They never made it.
Smith said the family had made it to the entrance to their Spanish Hills project, and “we could see a wall of smoke from afar,” he said. They still have about 1.5 miles to travel.
They had come within a quarter of a mile from their house when the smoke had become so thick, flying across the road, “If you got in it, you’d be driving blind.”
“Keeping on going was too dangerous, and I had to turn around,” he said.
“I only had one role to play and I’d be in our house. We had so many great memories in this house. We’re lucky everyone is safe. Now he’s just trying to pick up the pieces.”
seeing is believing
Smith drove the family to the college football center, not knowing where to go, to “wait for him.” It was also out of harm’s way.
Smith returned to the home of the host donor.
“I’m back there, now with the whole family this time, not just me,” he said.
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Later, a neighbor drove his car to the area, parked the car at a distance and “pushed it there” amid the devastation, even as the flames continued to burn.
He reported in a group text message, “My street is gone. Everything is on fire.
“That’s when we knew we had lost everything.”
Smith said the family did not sleep that night.
The next day, he said, residents could return, accompanied by a law enforcement escort, if “just to look” for 30 minutes. There was nothing but rubble.
Only the tires of two vehicles could be identified.
The house’s steel beams, covered in concrete, stood “but they were bent, twisted, and biscuit-filled.”
“It was unbelievable,” Smith said. “It’s all in just one big pile.”
“Okay, what do we do next?” He remembers thinking.
Help was already on the way.
Smith had posted the family’s loss and put it on Twitter, knowing that people were aware of the fire and that the family lived in that area.
This includes the two sets of parents who live in Abilene. It’s Tom and Marilyn Smith. Hers is Roger Gibbs and Lisa Sly.
“We were in Abilene a week ago,” Smith said. The first visit was in two years due to the pandemic.
He said, “A lot of people were worried. A lot of people have reached out because of that tweet. We’ve had a streaming support.”
This includes the university, starting with football coach Karl Durrell and athletic director Rick George. Efforts were made to make the family immediately have everything they needed, and most importantly a place to stay.
They needed to shop. As Smith said, they needed things like underwear.
“I have a wife, two daughters and a son. We have to start over.”
How did the family get there?
Smith is a 1996 graduate of the Cooper, an assisting agent for the Cougars football team that preceded the team that advanced to the state championship game and lost to future NFL star Drew Brees and Austin Westlake.
Smith did not play football from middle school until his first season. He was on the Cooper basketball and baseball team.
He went to Baylor but when Bears coach Chuck Reddy was fired in 1996, Smith, who was wearing a red jersey, returned to Abilene and played three years at Hardin Simmons.
“We won many matches and had a lot of fun,” he said.
Smith set several career records, including doing 60 of 61 extra kicks in 1999.
After graduation, Smith took an internship at Colleyville Heritage, where he stayed for four years. He was at Irving MacArthur for another four years before joining the college ranks as a defensive quality control coach at the University of Oklahoma.
He returned to Texas to be the head coach at LD Bell High during the 2014 season. He was a staff member of Chad Morris at SMU until 2017, then joined Morris at the University of Arkansas before Morris was fired in 2019. His staff also left.
Finding a new job has been a challenge during the pandemic, but Smith secured a position as defense coordinator at Long Island University in Brockville, New York.
“It was a strange year to be unemployed,” he said.
He never coached a game in 2020 because the season moved into the spring and he took the linebacker position at Colorado.
Smith, who still has a good sense of humor on Monday, said he told the Sharks coach he’s the best defensive coordinator in program history — he’s never given up a yard, let alone a touchdown.
“I finished my first year in Colorado and ready to start my second year,” he said.
But now, having called for a reprieve to deal with the fire.
Faith is important
Smith said the family relied on her faith as a pillow to rest on.
He said, “When you’re a believer, as we are, you have a different perspective on when these things happen. The Lord is in control. There’s a plan, and it’s already made for you.”
Yes, the family “grieves for what we have lost,” he said. People are worried all over the country.
“But you know God is in power and something wonderful is waiting for you on the other side,” he said. “That’s what we clung to.”
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When asked if there were specific things the family needed, Smith answered quickly.
“Only prayers,” he said. “We feel those prayers. We know that people are praying for us.” “We are overwhelmed by the kindness of the people here. We know there are prayers coming from all over the country, and in particular, our hometown.”
Next comes finding a new place to live and starting to rebuild their lives. But Smith said the family is optimistic.
“We will succeed,” he said. “We persevere. We will be better on the other side.”
Greg Jacklewich is an editor at Abilene Reporter-News and a general columnist. If you value locally paid news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
Do you want to help?
The gofundme page was created by Michelle Smith’s brother, Ryan Gibbs, who coaches with former Abilene Cooper coach Randy Allen at Highland Park. Search gofundme.com and find relief coach Mark Smith and Michelle Smith. A total of $15,510 of the $18,000 target had been achieved as of 7 p.m. Monday.