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Wildfire

Survivors share what they’ve learned from their painful experience with Colorado wildfires

Every wildfire has its differences, but some common challenges arise. From insurance to emotional wellbeing, here’s what they had to say about recovery.

A home destroyed by the Marshall Fire left smoldering in Old Town Superior on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022, in Superior, Colo. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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Sun staff writers Jason Blevins, Tamara Chuang, Shannon Najmabadi, Olivia Prentzel and Kevin Simpson contributed to this story.

Colorado has endured some major catastrophic wildfires over the past decade. But if there’s any silver lining to all that devastation, it’s that the survivors have learned some valuable lessons about how to proceed in their aftermath.

The Colorado Sun reached out to several of the people who not only survived, but rebuilt in the wake of infernos like the ones that swallowed the Black Forest, Waldo Canyon and East Troublesome footprints. They offered their insights, which often came at a painful cost, on everything from insurance issues to coping with the emotional fallout from the experience.

Here’s some of what they learned:

Don’t settle quickly

Rob Mossman lost a family cabin in Granby in the East Troublesome Fire. His family had been gathering at the property for more than 30 years. 

Less than two months after the fire leveled his property in late October 2020, his insurance company offered him 100% of his coverage limit. He declined. He is still working with Safeco Liberty Mutual and has not signed a final settlement. But the latest offer is 250% of the base coverage. 

“We are at a much larger dollar amount because we kept pushing and we have been patient,” he said.

Mossman is planning many meetings with residents of Boulder County, working with legal groups and churches to offer his advice on how to work with insurance companies. 

His top piece of advice: Don’t settle quickly

Take the quick check for 30% of the coverage for all your contents in your home, he said. Take the checks for additional living expenses, which is included with homeowners policies. Use that money to keep yourself afloat while you negotiate with your insurer. 

Mossman said as he spent more time studying his policy, he found riders that increased coverage by 25% because his house was a total loss. Another rider increased coverage by 25% if the state or federal government named a natural disaster as the cause of the loss. 

And know, Mossman said, that when you settle completely you are releasing your insurer from any more payments. 

“You are signing away their liability to coverage that they know they might have to pay that you don’t,” he said. “Yes they will ask for burdensome documentation and information. They want you to give up. So what I can say is persevere. The faster you get your money, the less likely you are to understand the situation like the insurance company does. If you don’t ask the right questions they are not going to offer it up. They are not going to tell you how they can get everything possible.”

So go slow with the insurance company, but move quickly to find a new home or an architect and contractor to rebuild, Mossman said. 

“If you take too long, contractors will be two, three, four years out,” said Mossman, noting how a limited number of contractors in Grand County are unable to get to new home construction for many years. “Everything else has got to move fast to give you time to move slow with your insurance company.”

Find land to stockpile debris

George Davis, whose Maple Street Builders is one of the oldest home builders in Grand County, said if homeowners want to move quickly to rebuild, Boulder County or local homeowner associations will need to help with debris removal.

After the East Troublesome fire, contractors were delayed by sporadic and inefficient removal. One ranch owner eventually bought a giant mulcher and concrete crusher, which helped. Davis suggested that Boulder County leaders set aside land to stockpile debris and solicit bids from contractors to clear hundreds of homesites. That’s so much better, he said, than 1,000 homeowners individually contracting with companies. 

Workers clean up debris near Fourth Avenue and Coal Creek Drive on Jan. 11, 2022, in Superior, twelve days following the Marshall fire. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“You will not believe the traffic when you have all those outfits trying to remove construction debris. There will be dump trucks all over that county,” said Davis, who estimated each home that burned to the ground would require at least 15 truck loads to haul away foundations. “If the county commissioners want to be on the side of the victims there, they will want to act quickly on the debris removal.”

Go slow with insurers

Natascha O’Flaherty is a Grand County lawyer who has worked with dozens of homeowners who lost their properties in East Troublesome as they negotiate with insurance companies.

She reiterates Mossman’s recommendation to work slowly with insurers

Many of her clients were unaware that most every home policy allows for an extra 5% above coverage limits for debris removal, which can be tricky in some tightly regulated areas, like Boulder County. 

“There are pools of money that the insurance companies will never tell you about,” she said. 

Matt and Ashley Reed spent 14 minutes collecting clothing, valuables and momentos as the East Troublesome fire closed in on their home in Grand Lake. They had lived there for 11 months, after spending 18 months building. The first thing Reed did after losing his dream home was request a certified copy of his insurance policy, not the four-page summary but the nearly 90-page actual policy. 

“You can find a lot of little things in that policy that the insurance company will not tell you about,” he said. 

For example, he said, his policy did not have limits on value for heirlooms, collector’s items and firearms. And his policy set aside money to pay for construction that meets new codes and regulations, which added $25,000 to his rebuilding costs.  

The Reeds had a personal relationship with their insurance agent. They relied on him as they worked through their policy and reimbursement. They also were friends with their mortgage broker, who walked them through the process of settling their old mortgage, securing a new construction loan and eventually moving that back to a traditional mortgage. Reed said the Grand County community is tightly woven and his family has always worked with locals when they can. That paid off when he needed help. 

Let others help

Schelly Olsen, the assistant fire chief for the Grand Fire Protection District No. 1, also has relied on her community for support in the past 16 months. She’s in constant contact with a group of residents who lost their properties in the East Troublesome fire, including eight other first responders in the region. The tendency, particularly for self-sufficient types like first responders, is to turn down offers of assistance.

Her advice for people struggling in Boulder County: Take the help. 

Entire neighborhoods were destroyed by the Marshall fire, as seen during an overflight on Friday morning, Dec. 31, 2021. (Provided to The Colorado Sun)

“You might think you are OK but you need to accept some of the help that is being offered,” she said. 

Everyone deals with disasters differently, Olsen said. Her husband, for example, wanted to go out and replace everything. 

“That just made me sick,” she said. “Give yourself time.”

Move in with family

Candace Cole and her husband lived on 5 acres bordering national forest on the edge of Grand Lake when the East Troublesome fire leveled their home. Within hours of visiting the ashen remnants, she started building a list of what was lost. Within 10 days she had an Excel spreadsheet with 1,100 items that burned, most of them gleaned from 10 years of Amazon orders. 

Another tip: she and her husband moved in with family, who charged them to stay in their home. That way the insurance company reimbursed their family for hosting them, just like the company would if they had chosen to move into a hotel or a rental home. 

Plan for a longer rental

Bill Mantia, a Black Forest resident who lost his home and rebuilt, sympathizes with what residents touched by the Marshall fire will go through in terms of construction issues. He went through it — in a tight but less crazy time.

“There’s almost 1,000 homes that were destroyed (in the Marshall fire), and there’s competition for contractors and subcontractors to rebuild,” he said. “And it’s going to be expensive. Just as an example, I had, I think, four or five different contractors putting in drywall. I mean, they’d be on the job one day and gone the next because they get paid more down the street.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

It took Mantia 30 months to rebuild his house — virtually a carbon copy of the original. He figured it should have taken about four. His advice: Expect to be out of your home for about a year. 

“That was one of the things that people here were struggling with — they didn’t know,” Mantia said. “So they go out and rent a house or a trailer or an apartment and they sign a six-month lease or something and then, lo and behold, they needed to extend and know whether or not the landlord will let them extend.”

“It’s OK to not feel grateful”

Sue Hoeffel, a Black Forest fire survivor along with her husband and two sons, offers some suggestions from their experience dealing with the difficult but often essential task of compiling an inventory for lost items for insurance purposes.

“It’s like staring into a casket for months. And it’s grueling,” she said. “So you’ve really got to pace yourself. Maybe take a room at a time. Give yourself space to cry over that room. And then move on to the next room. Because it’s really, really hard, and you’re doing this in the midst of incredible brain fog.”

A home in the Enclave Circle neighborhood in Louisville burns on Dec. 31, 2021, after the Marshall Fire tore through. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

She also found that paying close attention to the emotional aspect of the process proved helpful. While grateful to have escaped the inferno, the family never minimized the material possessions they lost. One of her sons pointed out, “98% is just stuff, but the other 2% is like a memory stick, a flash drive that holds your memories.” Seeing even a relatively short lifetime of prized possessions reduced to nothing, she adds, was particularly painful for the kids. 

For adults like Pat, the sense of loss included a generational artifact, a hammer handed down from his father. But for children like Sam, who was 13 and naturally shy, various toys, books and stuffed animals had for years comprised a very real and very personal community.

“I made worlds with them, worlds and stories and friendships,” he recalls now, as a 21-year-old college student at the University of Colorado. “And they died. They were burned to ash and I never got to bury them, never got to say goodbye.”

And so, Sue offers: “I would just want to encourage people that if somebody wants to say to them, ‘It’s just stuff, be grateful,’ it’s OK to not feel grateful right now. It’s OK to recognize that you’ve just gone through a huge life trauma that it’s going to take years to recover from and some of those memories you’re not ever going to get back.”

The Hoeffels spent time gathered around a table at their rental home sorting through photos of all the items they lost. It was a collective effort, but each individual had their own set of pictures to inventory — and, frequently, grieve over. The exercise provided what, for them, was the best setting for such a painful process.

“The bottom line is, it was better to do it as a family,” Sue says. “As long as everybody can have the space to own and express the emotions they have. It would be hard to be in a family where it’s not OK to cry, and sit around the table doing that — because all you want to do is cry. Our experience was that it was absolutely better to do it together. But it never felt good.”

Use a wedding registry

It was through community resources and talking to friends and strangers that Waldo Canyon fire survivor Carla Albers picked up many tips. Albers, who lost her house, inventoried everything she had lost in a notebook with pages split into different rooms to help her remember. She also had to find the replacement costs. She found out furniture stores that she had shopped at kept track of her purchases. She asked friends for pictures they had taken inside her house.

“Bed Bath & Beyond let us go in and open what was basically a wedding registry, only we used it for fire inventory,” Albers said. “They gave you one of those little laser guns to scan barcodes (and) it’s like, OK, I had a skillet, I had an Instant Pot. I had measuring cups. And then they printed it out for us.”

Colorado has since passed a law that lets owners of totally destroyed homes skip the written inventory and get paid a flat 30% of the value of destroyed contents. But she recommends listing everything. Because why not get 100% of what is covered? She needed it, she said. She learned her house was underinsured.

“Yes, you can.”

Marty Salazar lost her home in the Black Forest fire and benefited from similar advice she heard from a couple that lost their home in the Waldo Canyon fire a year earlier. One of their tips: Don’t take a percentage of the policy for lost possessions. Do the inventory. She and her husband, Bill, needed to do that in order to rebuild.

Another lesson she learned: Take pictures. And don’t forget to transfer them to the computer.

“After Waldo I photographed everything in the house,” she said. “But because I’m not good on the computer, I didn’t put them from the camera into my computer. And I left the camera in the house. So I had absolutely nothing to go on.”

Fortunately, she has a good memory, though to this day she still realizes items she overlooked. 

“You just can’t rush it,” she said. “It is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. I mean, I’d have days where I’d say, ‘I just can’t do this. I don’t have the computer knowledge to do it.’ And they said, ‘Yes, you can. Yes, you can. Yes, you can.’”


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