More than 170 people displaced by the destructive Marshall fire stayed in emergency shelters Thursday, as officials and good Samaritans worked to find more permanent lodging for the residents of up to 1,000 homes burned to the ground.
Officials urged residents to contact their insurance companies for help covering out-of-pocket expenses like food and temporary lodging, while a few hotels discounted their prices and Coloradans filled social media with offers to host evacuees.
Emergency housing efforts were complicated by the pandemic. One shelter was set aside for coronavirus-positive patients, and supply chain problems spurred by the global health crisis could slow rebuilding efforts, as parts of Colorado are already buckling under housing shortages and soaring costs.
“The rental market was already tight to begin with before this fire,” said Michael Ingoldby, a resident of Superior who lost his home in the fire. “If thousands of homes burned, it’s only going to get tighter.”
A state recovery task force led by the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management began meeting Friday and will be prioritizing emergency housing, division spokeswoman Micki Trost said.
Gov. Jared Polis also said he spoke with President Joe Biden and a Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator about support for medium-term housing for residents who want to keep their kids in local schools or find some normalcy before rebuilding destroyed homes.
“We are going to work hard with families and small businesses to rebuild our treasured communities, homes and sanctuaries for folks,” Polis said Friday at a news conference.
Biden has verbally approved an expedited major disaster declaration to help with rebuilding.
FEMA spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough said they were waiting for the president to formally sign the declaration outlining what assistance has been approved.
More than 500 homes were consumed by the 6,000-acre fire that began Thursday, fanned by wind gusts of up to 110 miles per hour. If those numbers hold, it will be the most destructive wildfire in state history in terms of the number of homes burned.
Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association, said it was too early to estimate insurance damages from the fire but expected it would be the most costly in state history in terms of insurance claims.
“I don’t even feel like I’m going out on a limb on that,” she said, calling the fire a “catastrophic, unprecedented event.”
The tight housing market “may affect people’s ability to find lodging, especially if they’re going to need it longer term,” she said.
She expected insurance losses to be high given the fire struck a densely populated urban area.
“It isn’t the size of the fire for insurance. It’s where the fire happens, the number of homes in the area, the cost to repair and rebuild those homes,” she said.
Colorado recently opened a transitional housing site for Afghan refugees, but Trost said there isn’t similar long-term housing planned for fire victims because they have different needs. Residents typically stay with family or friends for about a week or two after a fire before finding other housing while long-term repairs are made, she said.
The state is hoping to help those without homeowners’ or renters’ insurance and local businesses have offered hotel rooms, she said.
“The first option is to make sure that all of those that are insured are connected and using their insurance benefits because that’s the most effective and fastest way for recovery,” she said.
Temporary living expenses for food and lodging — money to “get you out of the shelter, to get you through the short-term” — are covered under standard homeowner and renter insurance policies, said Walker, with the insurance association. Mandatory evacuations trigger insurance coverage, she said.
She expected insurance coverage would be high as the neighborhoods affected were not second homes in mountainous areas but largely primary residences where people have mortgages and insurance is required.
Andrea Carlson with the Red Cross of Colorado & Wyoming said the organization was operating a shelter at the YMCA of Northern Colorado and was not offering payments for hotel rooms because shelters were open.
The organization initially focuses on ensuring people are safe and warm in an emergency response, she said. They then provide clean-up kits and other supplies to help people going back into their homes, and potentially financial assistance to those whose houses were damaged or destroyed.
“Right now, it’s making sure people are safe, that people are fed and that people aren’t in the snow in the cold as that’s all starting,” she said.
The Red Cross is still providing long-term response to the 2020 Estes Park fires, she said.
“There’s actually something I can do to help”
Meanwhile, residents offered assistance to fire victims on social media and the short-term rental platform Airbnb. The company has a program through which hosts can offer free emergency housing to those in need.
“I happen to have a place that was vacant for the next week and a half and so I thought … there’s actually something I can do to help people,” said Julia Pamcoe, 39, who offered a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Boulder to fire victims at no cost.
Pamcoe, who manages properties on Airbnb, felt lucky that her home and most of her friends’ homes were unscathed, though a tree she loved was blown over by the wind onto a neighbor’s house.
Stacy Howard, a Montessori school teacher, offered a room in her family’s four-bedroom house on Facebook after realizing her property and family were fine but their “community (was) broken.”
The space is nothing fancy, but enough to keep someone warm, she said.
“This seemed like the easiest, quickest way to put something out there to feel helpful,” she said. “I know if we were in that position, that would be the first thing I would be worried about… Where are you going to take your kids? Where are you going to sleep?”
Howard and her family evacuated to her mother’s house in Loveland yesterday and drove back today, staying away from the most heavily damaged neighborhoods to avoid scaring Howard’s elementary-school-aged kids.
She wasn’t surprised by the outpouring of support and offers to help.
“There’s lots of things that social media doesn’t do well, but this is certainly one of them it does do well,” she said.
The DoubleTree hotel in Westminster has been completely sold out since 6 p.m. Thursday, after fire evacuees started arriving at 1 p.m., said general manager Angie Harper. Of 186 rooms, about 120 are now occupied by evacuees, she said, and the hotel has knocked its nightly rate down from $130 to $79 for fire victims. They are also waiving fees for pets.
Last year, the hotel housed some 500 people during the East Troublesome fire with “every animal known to man,” including lizards, goats and chickens, she said.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been through fire before but this one is way different. It’s happened so quickly,” she said.
In Boulder, the historic Hotel Boulderado was also sold out — but not from fire evacuees.
“We would normally be sold out tonight because of New Year’s Eve,” rooms division manager Rachel Stanford said.
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.