By Jessica Mordacq, Boulder Reporting Lab
Editor's note: Boulder Reporting Lab was instrumental in on-the-ground reporting about the Marshall Fire and its aftermath. The anniversary of this most destructive wildfire in Colorado history – 10th costliest in U.S. history – is December 30, 2022.
In February, when Melissa Lockman and her friend, Jenevieve Russell, visited the remnants of Lockman’s Louisville home that burned in the Marshall Fire, they knew it would likely be the last time. Debris removal would soon be scheduled, and their expectations of finding any intact keepsakes were low.
Since the December 2021 disaster, Lockman had already been several times with her husband and two children to the lot where the house once stood. They recovered any possessions they could from the charred footprint.
But the two friends and colleagues, both trauma therapists at Joy Collective in Boulder, sought one last time to sift through the rubble in respirators, steel-toed shoes and hazmat suits — not looking for anything specific but knowing mementos might still be in the ground.
Under feet of ash and soot in what was the home’s basement, the friends unearthed a soaked box filled with family photo albums. It sat next to a water heater that had exploded during the fire. The appliance saved thousands of dampened pictures from burning.
They flipped through the albums together, stunned by the relatively preserved state of the photos. Russell collected the albums and drove them to Mike’s Camera on Pearl Street. Over the next seven months, three Mike’s Camera employees recovered as many photos as they could.
Last month, when Lockman picked up the roughly 1,200 restored photos spanning more than 40 years — along with a flashdrive of the pictures, many from a pre-digital camera era that couldn’t be replaced — she said she was at a loss for words.
“It was like the first moment when I found them,” Lockman said, “full of awe, gratitude and amazement. I can’t fully take it in right now.”
That feeling lingered after she arrived home. She flipped through snapshots of her husband, Mark Wiranowski, and his sister as children from an album her mother-in-law gifted them. She found ones from when she and Mark met in college.
Lockman said she hasn’t yet looked through all the photos but feels an overwhelming relief knowing they are there. “My son can look at pictures of Mark, back when my husband was 7, and be amazed by how much they look alike. We have that now,” Lockman said.
The same day Russell loaded the photo albums into her car from the debris, she called Mike’s Camera to ask how — if at all — she might save Lockman’s damaged albums. Curtis Busack, the store manager for 27 years, answered the phone and said, according to Russell, “Bring them over right now. I’ll help you unload them.”
“They couldn’t sit one more day,” Russell said in an interview about the damp photos. They were at risk of being permanently ruined from water damage after sitting in Lockman’s basement for two months.
“Moisture on pictures is going to create a fungus, separating the emulsion from the paper and, consequently, ruining the pictures,” Busack explained. So, Russell drove straight to Mike’s Camera, delivering Busack four plastic bins full of negatives and wet photo albums, many of which were burned on the edges and spines.
“I don’t know how much this is going to cost,” Russell said to Busack, “but I know we need to make this happen.”
Though the two never discussed payment, the owner of Mike’s Camera, Jirair Christianian, had told his staff to give any customer bringing in damaged photos from the Marshall Fire for restoration a minimum of $200 off. The store offered a similar discount for pictures that were covered in mud and water after the catastrophic floods of 2013.
Behind the sales floor in a room where Mike’s Camera staff teaches photography workshops, Busack and two other employees pushed chairs against the wall, pulled tables together, draped them and the floors with plastic sheets and got to work.
They peeled apart the photo albums, removed their contents, then cleaned, dried and flattened the pictures to prevent curling. Photo-Flo solution helped erase water streaks and decrease water surface tension on the negatives, helping them dry faster. For the photo albums Busack couldn’t open because their pages had melted together, he returned them to Lockman, along with other unsalvageable albums that were burned through.
The initial cleaning with three pairs of hands on-deck took about 30 hours over three days. Then, Mike’s Camera scanned the images to preserve them digitally. Busack estimates scanning took around a week, though stretched out over months since Russell and Lockman said there was no rush.
Busack said he and his team weren’t exceedingly emotional during the restoration process itself. He described seeing school and camp photos and what Busack said he believed to be Lockman’s wedding, which took place in the countryside. “You’re digging through this family’s memories,” Busack said. “By the time we were done with this, we knew their family.”
It wasn’t until Busack met Lockman when she came to collect her photos that they both teared up, Busack and Lockman said. “What was powerful for me was going there, meeting Curtis [Busack], and realizing that he had this whole other experience with this little part of the Marshall Fire through me,” Lockman said, holding back tears. “They worked on my behalf, while I’m trying to move on with 101 other things.”
Though Mike’s Camera did about $6,000 worth of work on Lockman’s photos, they charged her $2,000. “I knew they wanted to do as much pro bono work as they could,” Lockman said, but she wanted and had to contribute. “I wasn’t going to walk out like, ‘I can’t afford it, you can keep them.’”
Since establishing the $200 minimum discount for Marshall Fire survivors, Mike’s Camera has helped several people restore pictures from their destroyed homes. Many took home their photographs for free.
“When the customer comes to collect [their restored photos], and they find out we’re not charging anything for it because it fell within that umbrella, there’s a huge impact,” Busack said. “As far as my staff goes, several sit and cry with them. The raw emotion is pretty impactful.”
Lockman agreed about the impassioned response. “People are good, they just want to help so much.”
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