Fight2Win commentator and jiu-jitsu brown belt Nicholas Birgel, along with roommates Robert Parish and Dan Ryland and neighbor Fabiana Jorge, tell a story common among jiu-jitsu aficionados. Bonded by a mutual passion for the sport, the four of them have enjoyed a friendship spanning so many years and shared experiences, they’re more akin to family. Parish and Jorge, black belts who first met on the mats a decade ago as early training partners, are now a couple. Jorge describes Ryland and Birgel as being “like brothers to me.” Their quiet Colorado neighborhood served as the perfect home for their nascent community, a warm and steady reminder of the life they’d built together.
Then, on December 30, they lost everything.
The Boulder wildfires, which have recently ravaged local Colorado suburbs, struck their neighborhood that afternoon. “I was at training in Boulder when I first heard about the fire,” Parish recounts. “I knew there was a smaller fire going on, but it was far away from our home, so I didn’t give it much thought. Right at the end of class, I was told that another fire had started, and it was in my neighborhood. I immediately grabbed my things and headed home.”
“Winds were whipping all morning that day – at a certain point, I could smell a fire, and then it all happened so fast,” says Birgel. “I couldn’t even walk two steps without needing a sweatshirt to cover my mouth and glasses for the winds and fire in my eyes.”
The smoke thickened so rapidly that navigating their way home proved impossible. Panic struck. Helpless to intervene as their home burned, Parish was forced to shelter at a friend’s home for the night. “I was a complete wreck,” he says. “Couldn’t stop crying the rest of the afternoon into the night. I was devastated that I couldn’t make it home, but still had no idea of the extent of the damage. We were monitoring the fire from one of my friends, as he was on the border of the evacuation line. I was at a complete loss for words, and couldn’t imagine what was actually happening.”
Jorge, meanwhile, suffered an entirely different nightmare during the time of the fire – trapped overseas while traveling an entire country away, she discovered the extent of her loss only piecemeal, through texts and calls. After a text message from a friend in Boulder alerted her to the disaster, she immediately called her boyfriend, Parish, to find out more about what was happening. “By the tremble in his voice, I already knew,” Jorge remembers. “I was frantic. My signal wasn’t the best, and I kept trying to call the Superior Fire Department, but no phone calls were going through. I called his roommate Dan, and he didn’t know what was going on, or if my animals were alive because he was at work.”
The damage, as it turned out, was overwhelming. “Our home is completely burned to the ground,” says Parish. “The only thing I had was the gear I was training in, and the clothes I was wearing that day. Even five days later, we couldn’t go back to the area. Everything I’ve ever worked for was in that house, and it was gone in an instant… Each day, I realize things that I can never get back. Sentimental items that hold more value to me than I can explain. It’s all gone.”
“My emotions are all over the place right now,” he adds. “I feel like I am either numb or crying, without much in between. It’s so hard to accept what happened. I feel like once we’re allowed back in the area and can see for ourselves that nothing’s left, it’s going to hit me even harder. From the pictures, I know it’s just rubble and ash. I don’t really know what the future is going to look like. Hundreds of homes were destroyed, and thousands of people are in the same boat as us right now. It’s just too hard to think about why this had to happen, and why life slapped us across the face as it did.”
“We lost everything,” Birgel admits frankly. “Down to the hand-made Peruvian scarves, down to hard drives of memories and photos. Everything material, and everything sentimental.”
The worst losses, however, were Jorge’s animals. “I don’t care about my material possessions,” she confesses. “All I really cared about were my animals. My cat Bubbles was my pet for about ten years. I got him a sophomore year of college at CU Boulder. But my dog, Bruno, he was only with me since July 24, 2020. He was two months old when I adopted him.”
Bruno, explains Jorge, had been her emotional support animal. After a long and hard-fought battle with mental illness issues, she adopted Bruno in 2020 hoping that he could help – and for a time, he did. In an Instagram post featuring her beloved dog, Jorge writes, “Many times I’ve wanted to leave this world in the last year or so, before finally getting him. But he kept me here.” In her final message to Bruno, Jorge confesses, “You were so much more than a dog. You felt like you were meant for me. You were my source of comfort. It felt like you were supposed to be my emotional support animal and you did your job so well… You were a part of my life like no one else was. So how can I go on without you? I don’t know. And I’m so sorry. I wish I didn’t leave you on this last trip. I knew I didn’t want to go anymore and I still left. I feel like I died with you on Thursday.”
When asked about his emotional state since the events of December 30, Birgel’s first words are also for Jorge’s beloved Bruno. “I am heartbroken for the loss of Bruno, coyote-dog, most,” he confides. Parish echoes the same sentiments: “More than the material possessions I wasn’t able to save the animals, and nothing hurts more than that. Every thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. Don’t get me wrong, losing my savings and everything else hurts, but nothing can ever take the pain of losing the dog go away.”
Yet tragedies are rarely – if ever – absolute. While F. Scott Fitzgerald may have famously written, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy,” in times of devastation, we may as well read the quote backward. Show us a tragedy, and sure enough, we’ll find heroes among the rubble.
When Birgel jumped into his car to flee his burning neighborhood, he’d been thinking about survival. Smothered by smog and heat from all directions, he didn’t have the bandwidth to process much beyond his own need to stay alive. “I thought my car was going to explode when I was driving around the flames,” he confides, then for a bit of levity, “I felt kind of like Pierce Brosnan from Dante’s Peak.”
The sudden bash on his car window, however, brought his frantic escape to a halt. Outside was a middle-aged woman, suffering from severe burns, and stranded without a car. Birgel immediately rushed her to a hospital, where she was treated for burns on her face and hands, as well as severe smoke inhalation. While the woman was put on life support, Birgel called her family and emergency contacts to inform them of the situation. “Felt kind of weird to be that guy,” admits Birgel. “Crazy powerful energy as well, when death and life come together like that.”
Life prevailed, in this case. The woman survived. On New Year’s Day, she reached out to Birgel, letting him know that she would be discharged from the hospital the following day – and that, thanks to him, she was safe.
Since then, Birgel and his friends have been floored by the support offered by their community. “I would like to thank every single person who has sent us kind words, love, donations, and anything else to try and help us,” says Jorge. “I can’t explain the immense gratitude we all feel. So many strangers have helped, and I really have a hard time because I want everyone to know that I’m so thankful, but all I can really say right now is thank you.”
“I am sad for my friends, sometimes for myself, but I’m also kind of hopeful,” says Birgel. “Out of disasters come miracles. It’s a stage of life, the rebirth after destruction. It breeds life. There seems to be support for us around every corner. Maybe that’s the reason for my naive positivity. Everyone seems to be reaching out like I’m family. Feels good, man.”
The feeling appears to be mutual. Members of the Colorado jiu-jitsu scene have rallied around Birgel and his friends, expressing just how much they mean to the local community. “When we think of Rob [Parish] and Fabi [Jorge], we feel graciousness and serenity,” writes Steven Bryant, a GoFundMe organizer on Parish and Jorge’s donation page. “Attempting to convey just how much of an impact these two have on the jiu-jitsu community would be in vain.”
“Nick [Birgel] works his *** off for Fight2Win every weekend,” says Birgel’s boss, Fight2Win CEO, and promoter Seth Daniels. “He’s an ambassador for good times, and always has a great attitude. Without Nick, life would be a lot less f*cking cool.”
The community response to the Boulder fires – and to the life-altering devastation experienced by just four people among thousands – has been a testament to many things: to resilience, to friendship, to the bonds built upon jiu-jitsu mats and beyond. But most of all, perhaps, it’s a testament to our ability, as people, to care for each other. To open a door, as Birgel did for a stranger stranded amidst the smoke and fire, and to ferry each other toward safety, warmth, and the fragile, stubborn chance of a kinder tomorrow.
To add to the support for Birgel and his friends in the aftermath of their losses, you can contribute to their GoFundMe pages below: