As Marshall Fire closed in, a superior woman rescued her sleeping neighbor
In the Sagamore neighborhood of Superior, landlords didn’t just know each other by first name.
They waved as they passed, shared vegetables from the garden, checked on how the other children were doing, and lent a helping hand when needed.
So when Dee and Larry Peters planned to spend the last part of the year skiing at Copper Mountain, asking their six-year-old neighbor, Sheryl Buchman, to keep an eye on their daughter, Madalyn Peters, 26, was considered a usual courtesy.
Whenever her parents go out of town, Buchman and Madalyn Peters consult. Madalyn Peters has a learning disability and fine and gross motor issues. She doesn’t drive. Buchman made sure to watch over her.
On the morning of December 30, Madalyn Peters was finishing a regular eight-hour shift restocking frozen goods at Target. She returned around 5:30 a.m. to the family home in the 300 block of Cherokee Avenue.
Around mid-morning, the winds began to whip violently. Laura Peters, 28, who lives in Denver, texted her younger sister asking her to take out the trash cans from the gusts and put them in the family’s garage.
After completing the task, Madalyn Peters put her phone on silent and headed to her basement bedroom to get some sleep. It was 10:30 a.m. About 30 minutes later, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history would ignite to South Foothills Highway and Marshall Road – only about five miles.
While Peters slept, next-door neighbor Buchman had been working from her home for about eight years. Buchman, a physician’s assistant, was doing clerical duties that day, while doing laundry and baking banana bread. She was home with her three children: Jordan, 21; Lauren, 19, and Evan, 16, and their dog Ruby, a mini schnauzer terrier.
It was on this day that Buchman would go from friend and neighbor of the Peters to hero. Fueled by dry conditions and hurricane-force winds, the Marshall Fire moved through eastern Boulder County, closing in on the Sagamore neighborhood.
As it burned, flames would destroy 1,084 homes in Superior, Louisville, and unincorporated parts of the county, taking the entire Sagamore neighborhood with them.
“I thought we would come back”
Buchman began to smell smoke just after noon. When she opened the door for a package delivery, she noticed smoke and saw two fire engines slowly passing down the street. The vehicles weren’t using their sirens and didn’t have their hazard warning lights on, which told Buchman that there was no emergency yet.
The signs were enough, however, for her to alert her children and ask them to gather some things for the evacuation.
“I didn’t pick up anything to take away, because we thought we’d be back,” Buchman said.
In the meantime, she tried to call Laura Peters to ask how she could tell Madalyn Peters to evacuate, but the call was unsuccessful.
In her apartment in Denver, Laura Peters received a text message. A colleague of his had purchased gasoline at Superior Costco and saw the heavy smoke. Knowing that Laura Peters’ family lived nearby, she texted him to let him know there was a fire in Marshall. Laura Peters called her colleague to find out more; it was then that she learned that the fire was now visible in the area.
“I immediately hung up and called Sheryl (Buchman) and shouted that Maddie was still there (at home),” Laura Peters said.
From Copper Mountain, Dee Peters said he received a text on his phone at 12:18 p.m. saying the Superior area was being evacuated.
“My first thought was ‘Oh my God. Who’s got Maddie?'” Dee Peters said.
While Buchman was on the phone with Laura Peters, Buchman’s daughter began shouting “There’s a fire behind the house!” From his bedroom window, Buchman could see the flames consuming a bush on the open space behind their home and only three to four feet from its back fence. The family rushed out of the house. Her sons got into one car and her daughter and her dog waited in the other, while Buchman ran for Madalyn Peters.
By then, the air was thick with smoke, as Buchman worked to open the Peters’ front door using the security code Laura Peters had given him.
“Embers were flying; I was inhaling ashes,” Buchman said. “I’m sensitive to numbers. I couldn’t see them and it doesn’t work.
Buchman considered breaking the sliding glass door at the back of the house with a rock, but by then she could see the flames were in the Peters’ garden. After learning in a final phone call to Laura that there was an “Enter” number to press, she rushed into the house to look for Madalyn Peters.
“I started shouting ‘Maddie!’ while I was running around the house,” Buchman said.
In her rush, Buchman fell down the basement stairs, but managed to keep the phone in her hands. Laura Peters, who was still on the other end of the line, heard Buchman wake her sister and say, “Put your shoes on. There’s a fire in the neighborhood. Let’s go.”
“I realized if Sheryl was waking me up, something was seriously wrong,” Madalyn Peters said.
Madalyn Peters grabbed her glasses, phone and computer. They had been in the house for less than two minutes, before they both rushed out into the smoky air of their burning neighborhood.
“Smoke, it was just pure smoke,” she said. “I could barely see my own hands. It was just foggy, smoky.
Getting into Buchman’s car, they crawled out of the neighborhood. Visibility was poor and traffic was slow when they arrived at Marshall Road. Madalyn Peters texted her sister “I’m fine” to let her know she was fine.
As Buchman’s sons headed to Boulder to stay with their father, Buchman went to his office in Broomfield to meet Laura Peters. The usual 12 minute ride took about an hour.
Sagamore’s neighbor, Chris Raulf, and his daughter-in-law, Keeley, also fled the fire with their lives that day.
Raulf lives on the other side of the Peters. When Raulf said he saw the fire trucks passing in the street and the ash and smoke in the air, he too became alarmed and decided it was time to evacuate. They escaped with their two cats, Rita and Mushroom. Raulf said he also managed to grab his computer, the family’s passports and a pile of bills as he rushed for the door.
Raulf said he saw Buchmans’ car outside her house. He thought she was also evacuating.
The next day, as Raulf was texting his neighbors asking if they were okay, he learned of Buchman’s efforts to save Madalyn Peters. Raulf said he thought Buchman deserved recognition.
“Sheryl’s action is what gives me hope for the future,” Raulf said in an email. “His spirit is what our community is. We are here for each other and we will rebuild our homes.
Reflecting on this day
Sheryl Buchman had not seen her neighbors since December 30.
On January 18, she knocked on the door of the Peters’ temporary home in Boulder. In the living room, she kissed Dee Peters.
Dee Peters said she doesn’t see her neighbor as a hero. She’s a superheroine. As Raulf pointed out, Buchman’s efforts that day speak to the bond that united them as neighbors.
“You didn’t give up,” she told Buchman. “You saved her. When I knew Sheryl was working to get Maddie back, I knew Maddie would be fine.
“Every time you left, I told you, I got it,” Buchman said. “I didn’t expect to have to flee the neighborhood, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
The people who make up the neighborhood are what most make it feel like home, they said.
“We all talked. We hung around,” Raulf said. “Hopefully we can get that back.”
Thinking back to the day the fire swept through their neighborhood, they envision a day when they can once again live next door, share vegetables from the garden and bump into each other on walks.
“It was kind of like we had a lot of angels watching us,” Buchman said. “It seems strange to say ‘our houses burned down, we had angels watching us’ – but here we are.”