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After a Fire, Rebuilding What Matters

On Dec. 23, 2021, Emily Thompson handed her grandmother’s solitaire diamond to a jeweler to have it incorporated into her wedding band. She and her fiancé, Stefan Kienle, had planned to marry in eight months.

One week later, on Dec. 30, the Marshall fire ripped through their town, Louisville, Colo., and the neighboring town, Superior, consuming more than 1,000 homes in its wind-driven path. By New Year’s Eve, their home and its contents were among the smoldering carnage left by Colorado’s most destructive fire.

“I was holding on to hope until I watched the actual helicopter footage of our neighborhood and saw our empty lot,” Mr. Kienle said.

A giant pile of dust would dramatically shift what they prioritized in a wedding and, more important, a marriage. It would also challenge their relationship but ultimately solidify them as a team.

Like many other residents on holiday vacation, Ms. Thompson, an analyst relations manager working remotely for Rackspace Technology, based in Windcrest, Texas, and Mr. Kienle, an aerospace engineer in Golden, Colo., for San Francisco-based Loft Orbital, were not home at the time to grab valuable belongings. Ms. Thompson was out of cell service on a kayaking trip with a friend in Belize; Mr. Kienle was in the mountains giving ski lessons.

Once Mr. Kienle had confirmed that their house was destroyed, he texted Ms. Thompson, who was still in the Belize, “Don’t take the bus from the airport, I have bad news. Call me.”

He didn’t want to ruin her vacation when there was nothing she could do. But by that point, she’d already received many other fire-related text messages.

She knew it was all gone: their childhood photos, her college journals, his mother’s 15th-century antique furniture, her laptop and hard drives, his father’s rare book collection.

“She responded to my text with ‘It’s only stuff. Puppies are OK. You’re OK. It’s just stuff.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this woman,’” Mr. Kienle said.

But, once reality sunk in, Ms. Thompson says it wasn’t that easy to let go of the life they had begun building together in 2018 after buying the house.

Ms. Thompson, 46, and Mr. Kienle, 54, first met in August 2016 in Denver at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. They struck up a conversation about their recent endurance events (hers an Ironman Triathlon and his a half marathon).

Mr. Kienle said he was genuinely attracted to Ms. Thompson’s “long flowing hair” and impressed by her athletic accomplishments, but admitted he was poor at expressing his interest.

“I was afraid of girls and had been hurt enough,” he said. “When I was 13, I kissed a girl, and she said I slobbered. I didn’t kiss a girl again until I was 28. I’m a slow roller and become friends with women long before I ask them out.”

Neither he nor Ms. Thompson had ever been in a relationship longer than a year.

Ms. Thompson recalled being drawn to his “bright blue eyes and athletic build” at their first encounter. “I was attracted to his intelligence and how easy it was to talk with him,” she said. “And when I mentioned my dog, Annie, was in the car, he asked to go out and meet her.”

Ms. Thompson had a requirement that men she dated in Colorado be able to keep up with her on skis. Upon learning that night that Mr. Kienle had grown up skiing the mountains of Alaska and was now a part-time ski instructor, she knew she had potentially found the adventure partner she had been seeking.

A few weeks later they met again, through the same host, at a “Bring Your Own Dog” party where their dogs Bianca, an Australian shepherd, and Annie, an Alpine schnauzer, tussled over a treat. There Mr. Kienle told Ms. Thompson he’d love to go cycling with her and asked for her phone number.

“I thought Stefan might be another activity partner,” said Ms. Thompson, who is originally from Scranton, Pa. But following the cycling date on Oct. 23, Mr. Kienle, from Fairbanks, Alaska, asked her on a “real date” to a restaurant.

Over the next two years, the couple and their dogs grew closer adventuring outside together. But living separately began to bother Ms. Thompson. Each owned a home four miles apart.

“Most of our fights were about whose place we were staying at,” Ms. Thompson said. “He wanted me to move into his house. But I wanted us to have our house if our relationship was going to be successful.”

Ms. Thompson eventually compromised by moving into his house until they found their house. Two months later, in October 2018, together they purchased a home in Louisville. In August 2021, they got engaged.

“The first time we went there and saw our belongings steaming in the snow — that was definitely really emotional,” said Ms. Thompson of the rubble that was left of their home. “I was unaware of how intense a wildfire is. Aluminum was vaporized. Glass was dust.”

Sifting required shoveling heaps of ash onto a framed screen and then shaking it in hopes that something of value would remain. Together, wearing N-95 face masks and gloves, they looked through the ash as it snowed overhead.

The toxic smell that “stuck to you” reminded Ms. Thompson of the week after 9/11 when she visited her friend in Lower Manhattan. With the intense heat of the fire and the weight of the debris, it was hard to recover much.

She did, however, unearth the one item she wanted to find. Under the sink of the first-floor corner bathroom she had hidden a canvas bag of silver belonging to her paternal grandmother Emily (affectionately called “Goodie”), a significant caretaker in her life. Inside the bag, she had also placed Goodie’s jewelry.

After clearing away a few tiles, there lay Goodie’s platinum pin shining atop mangled silver. Ms. Thompson dug beneath the warped forks and knives and found the gold locket her grandma had always worn. The picture inside of her and her brother was ash.

“Seeing that necklace felt like she was looking out for me,” Ms. Thompson said.

“The great purge,” said Mr. Kienle, whose mother died of a heart attack two weeks before the fire, brought valuable perspective to what mattered. With very few belongings left to claim as his or hers, the prenuptial agreement that they had planned before the fire went up in smoke.

“The fire made me realize how serious our relationship is,” Ms. Thompson said. “In the past, it would have taken a whole lot less for me to be like, ‘It’s not going to work.’ It made me realize that he was important enough that I could figure this out.”

Their new outlook on needs versus wants altered their wedding registry. “Trash cans were one of my most wanted items,” Ms. Thompson said.

Guests sent the many practical items they had requested early to help the couple furnish the rental house in Boulder that they moved into after the fire. They’d never used either set of their grandmothers’ silver, so they registered for flatware instead.

“Don’t save your china for special occasions,” said Mr. Kienle, who found his grandma’s china and glassware melted together. Every night they now drink from their Waterford crystal flutes, a gift from wedding guests.

Before the fire Ms. Thompson said she was much more fixated on event planning. “It was going to be perfectly structured,” she said. “Then after the fire, the level of detail dropped dramatically. All of a sudden, I didn’t care about flowers.”

She bought flowers for the wedding from the supermarket florist. She also put her 14-year-old niece, Anna Thompson, in charge of finding dresses for her bridesmaids in her favorite color, hot pink.

If the people who show up for your wedding highlight your true friendships (both old and new), a fire further illuminates these bonds. “You truly realize who your support system is,” said Ms. Thompson, who altered the guest list after the fire. “The kindness of complete strangers during these months has regularly brought me to tears.” Several guests were added from their supportive weekly run club, Revolution Running, which they cited as their source of therapy.

On Aug. 28, 2022, Ms. Thompson and Mr. Kienle were married atop Arapahoe Basin, one of their favorite places to ski, before 69 guests. Marti Kantola-Dane, a fellow ski instructor and friend of the groom who became a Universal Life minister for the event, officiated.

Ms. Thompson walked down the aisle to John Williams’s “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” (appropriate for a 13-time Ironman finisher). She wore a Justin Alexander tulle and Venice lace ball gown. Her grandma Goodie’s platinum pin was secured to her bouquet of white hydrangeas, baby’s breath and four hot pink roses. Mr. Kienle wore a black tuxedo with a fuchsia tie. Their dogs served as attendants — Annie was the flower girl escorted by Ms. Thompson’s nephew and Bianca was the ring bearer escorted by Mr. Kienle’s niece.

A friend who had helped them search the ash read the poem, “Dust If You Must,” by Rose Milligan:

“Dust if you must, but wouldn’t it be better

To paint a picture, or write a letter,

Bake a cake, or plant a seed;

Ponder the difference between want and need?

Dust if you must, but there’s not much time,

With rivers to swim, and mountains to climb;

Music to hear, and books to read;

Friends to cherish, and life to lead.”

Reflecting on all that they had endured, the bride said: “Material possessions can be gone in a flash, but nothing can take away our experiences together.”

When Aug. 28, 2022

Where Black Mountain Lodge at the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Dillon, Colo.

Paw-fectly Witnessed The couple’s dogs, Annie and Bianca, witnessed the marriage license with pink and teal paw prints.

The Rings Ms. Thompson and Mr. Kienle designed their matching rings in platinum, for its resistance to fire, and in gold, symbolizing the outline of the mountain ridgeline visible from their wedding ceremony. Each ring has a diamond, her birthstone, and an amethyst, his birthstone. Her grandmother’s solitaire diamond was set in hers.

The Descent Under a clear, starlit sky, guests rode the chairlift down the mountain in ski hats embroidered with E & S, a gift from the couple.

What’s Next? The couple plans to rebuild on the same lot, though they are currently faced with home insurance hurdles and skyrocketing building costs.

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