BOULDER COUNTY, Colo. — On December 30, 2021, the Kupfner family in Superior faced a nightmare. Strong winds pushed a wall of flames towards the property where the family has lived for decades.
Even though they lost everything in the Marshall Fire, the Kupfners still feel immense gratitude because no one in their family was killed. That could have easily been Phil Kupfner that day.
After the fire, Phil spent more than a week at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora. He inhaled so much smoke that he needed a ventilator to survive.
"It was just a true blessing from God he made it," said Phil's son, Daniel Kupfner. "Medical professionals say this is what kills 90% of firefighters."
Daniel was over at his parents' house in Original Town, Superior on the afternoon of December 30, 2021. While they were having lunch inside, the family noticed smoke in the distance. The back of their home looked out into open space.
"You could see the flames coming over the hill like a flood of water and I knew it was bad," said Vicki Kupfner, Phil's wife.
Vicki packed up and left. She knew Phil and their son Daniel would stay behind to save the house.
"My mind just went to, well, let's get set up for it," said Daniel. "I ran down to the shed where we kept the fire hoses."
The Kupfners run the family’s contracting business on the same property. Using the hundreds of feet of fire hose they had, the family tried to save their livelihoods. Daniel hosed one side. Phil's brother, George Kupfner, who also lived on the street, sprayed another side.
"I would think the flames were 12 to 15 feet tall coming over that hill in a 100 mile per hour wind storm," said George. "Tree chips started burning and they burned little holes in our hose."
Wind was killing their chances. Phil was doing everything he could to protect the house until he had to focus on saving himself. The wall of fire came up to him so quickly that he dropped to his knee and put the fire hose over his head.
"I just panicked," Phil said. "I had no idea what to do."
The fire went by him but there was little oxygen for Phil to breathe. He felt like he was breathing fire.
"There was no oxygen, and you get kind of light-headed because of all the smoke I have been breathing," he said.
His jacket was torched. The wind slammed debris on his body, burning holes through his jacket. With debris in his eyes and burns on his back, he continued spraying down his property until he couldn’t do it anymore.
Phil ran to his truck to get out. He thought he had saved his house because it wasn't on fire yet.
When he got inside his truck, visibility was so poor on the road due to the smoke. He could barely see the street. As he started to drive away, Phil said he saw his neighbor Dave standing in the middle of the road. Phil said Dave also stayed behind to stop the fire from burning his house down.
"Dave looked like he was a burnt hot dog," said Phil. "He was completely black. Looked like he had no hair to me. I could see the whites of his eyes and everything else was black."
Phil said he thought Dave was suffering from severe burns and needed to go to the hospital. Phil said he told Dave to get in the car.
"I opened the door for him and said Dave you got to get in or we are going to die," said Phil.
While trying to help his neighbor, Phil saved himself. He had no idea what shape he was in. Phil drove seven miles to a hospital in Broomfield thinking his neighbor was barely holding on.
"I am driving kind of conservative because I can't see," said Phil. "I wipe my eyes once and they got full of tears."
Phil said he walked Dave into the emergency department. A nurse at the counter then asked Phil to take a seat noticing he may need medical attention, too. Phil doesn’t remember sitting in a chair. He woke up six days later.
Phil said Dave was treated and released. Phil inhaled so much smoke he needed a ventilator to survive. After arriving at the hospital in Broomfield, Phil was transported to a hospital in Aurora for additional medical treatment. Phil’s wife, Vicki, remembers hospital staff calling the family to let them know where he was.
“They told me he was alive and he was OK but he was sedated,” said Vicki. “I was relieved, but at the same time I didn’t know the extent of what kind of injury or damage he was in.”
Vicki said the hospital wouldn’t allow her to go inside to be with her husband because Phil had tested positive for COVID-19. Vicki said staff assumed she had it too. Their daughter was with Phil in his room instead.
After an induced coma, Phil woke up six days later. He remembers hearing his daughter telling him everything is OK as doctors took the tube out of his throat.
“She said the bad news, it’s all gone,” Phil said. “but she says the good news is everybody is OK.”
Phil drove to the hospital thinking he had saved his home. He woke up to learn his house was one of more than 1,000 gone.
The Marshall Fire destroyed several homes owned by the Kupfner family in Superior. Treasures that can’t be replaced were consumed by flames. The family has removed debris from where their homes once stood, and they’re still navigating the permit process to rebuild.
The fire took so much but ignited a new perspective.
“Everything is gone, it is devastating,” said Vicki. “But it is always easy to come back and say those things don’t really matter.”
Their memories survived and Phil was given a chance to make more.
“We still have the important things,” said Phil. “Our families and the ability to do these things again.”
SUGGESTED VIDEOS: Marshall Fire Coverage