The smell of smoke was seeping into Stephanie Valdez’s Louisville home and she immediately felt ill. The mother of four began packing up some of her belongings, directed her children to do the same, and then all five left their home.
“It was like a movie. The wind was blowing really, really hard. There was ash everywhere. There was really thick smoke in the air, and we had no idea what was going on, or how it had escalated this far,” Valdez said.
Valdez thought her family would be out of their home on Grouse Court for perhaps a few hours and felt gratitude about leaving when they did. A few days after the Marshall fire destroyed nearly 1,100 homes in Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, the family felt lucky to have a home still standing, just a few blocks away from where entire neighborhoods burned. But as soon as they stepped inside, their sense of relief vanished.
The four-bedroom home where they have lived for the past five years was coated with ash, and the air inside seemed toxic, making it hard to breathe without fits of coughing. Valdez felt nauseated and lightheaded, and one of her daughters felt like she was going to faint.
“I just had no idea what we were in for,” said Valdez, who lives with chronic health conditions. “The emotional trauma of that day has been really hard to overcome.”
Valdez still is concerned about her health and the health of her kids, but she’s most worried about how she’ll pay to replace all their belongings that were contaminated by smoke and ash.
Like some of the thousands of people who were displaced by the fire, she’s a renter who has no insurance. And many of them are like Valdez, stuck in a kind of limbo, trying to navigate a scary, chaotic and expensive new reality.
Homeowner’s insurance carried by Valdez’s landlord will cover the cost of comprehensive cleaning of the house, including steam cleaning carpets, power washing the home’s exterior, replacing insulation in the attic and air-quality remediation, including cleaning air ducts. But without renter’s insurance, Valdez must pay out of pocket to professionally clean any belongings she didn’t already toss.
More than 30% of the applications for disaster assistance received by the Federal Emergency Management Agency have come from Marshall fire survivors who identified as renters.
Although there are many services for people whose homes were destroyed by the fire, people without renter’s insurance are having a harder time finding help. Their homes aren’t on any official list that would give them access to services that would reduce or eliminate the cost to clean their contaminated personal belongings.
Marshall Fire coverage
A Boulder County Housing and Human Services spokesman said in an email that the county has not compiled specific information about the people who don’t have renter’s insurance but have significant smoke and ash damage. More services may be on the way, but county officials aren’t sure when that help will come.
The county is working with Community Foundation Boulder County to identify the most acute needs for financial help following the fire, said Jim Williams, communications specialist for Boulder County Housing and Human Services.
“We anticipate additional funding to be made available in the near future and will share this information widely when it happens,” he said.
But Anthony Mayne, a FEMA spokesman said that disaster assistance is not a substitute for insurance and cannot compensate for all losses caused by the fire. The assistance, he said, is intended to help meet the basic needs of victims.
FEMA provides personal property assistance to renters to help replace essential items that were lost. But to become eligible for that assistance, applicants must have applied for a Small Business Administration loan, been turned down and then referred back to FEMA, Mayne said.
One month after the fire, federal agencies had provided more than $69 million in aid to Boulder County fire survivors. Since then, more than 2,900 people have applied for FEMA assistance, for example, and of those, 822 have received assistance, according to Mayne.
Deciding to toss or clean possessions
At Valdez’s home southeast of the Louisville Recreation Center, plastic sheets were spread out to protect the carpets as purifiers outfitted with HEPA filters and an ionizer machine ran to help scrub the foul air inside the house. She filled large garbage bags with clothing, toys and other items that must be cleaned.
Servpro, the company handling the cleanup work covered by her landlord’s insurance, estimated it would cost Valdez $6,500 to clean the salvageable possessions. Other companies have given her estimates ranging from $15,000 to $75,000.
Valdez said she tossed about $10,000 worth of belongings that filled up two dumpsters, because she couldn’t afford to get them cleaned, and they were making her sick. She trashed the couch and other big pieces of furniture, clothing, a trampoline, kids toys, dishes, items left exposed on countertops, mattresses, electronics and a $400 sensory swing used to calm her 10-year-old twin sons who are diagnosed with autism and sometimes become overstimulated.
“I always thought that if the landlord had insurance that anything would be covered,” Valdez said late last month. “I was never educated, I guess, regarding the importance of renter’s insurance to cover your belongings.”
Landlords are increasingly requiring that their tenants purchase renter’s insurance to avoid these kinds of struggles. Valdez’s landlord lost his own home of 30 years to the Marshall fire, she said.
Valdez’s daughters, who are 14 and 19, also have chronic health problems. Valdez doesn’t work and under normal circumstances uses a $2,500 monthly disability payment to cover the family’s expenses.
Her sons were calm when The Sun visited the family where they are staying in a Louisville hotel, playing games on their iPads. But Valdez said the boys sometimes worry about the belongings they lost to smoke damage and they worry about becoming permanently homeless.
Some of Valdez’ neighbors have already moved back into their homes, she said. But others are still staying in hotels.
“It depends on the way the wind blew and on people’s health,” Valdez said. “There’s so many factors thrown in. People just want to get back (home) ASAP.”
Help is there – formal and ad hoc
While there are lots of community resources available, accessing them can be tough to figure out.
In the early days, before Sister Carmen Community Center and The Association for Community Living paid to put Valdez and her kids up in a hotel, she was paying out of pocket.
She applied for FEMA assistance to cover her cost for the hotel, and asked for housing assistance in her application. But she was not approved for either of those benefits. FEMA did provide a $125 gift card for groceries, she said.
People whose homes were damaged visited the Disaster Assistance Center in Lafayette during the first two weeks after the fire, but some were not able to get aid because damage to their homes had not been verified, said Suzanne Crawford, CEO of Sister Carmen.
The Boulder Office of Emergency Management is working with other organizations to complete The Marshall Fire Damage Assessment, a list of structures damaged or destroyed by the inferno.
Homes damaged by smoke and ash, like Valdez’s, are not included on the list, which is being used by Boulder County officials to help determine who’s eligible for financial assistance provided by Community Foundation Boulder County’s Wildfire Fund. Other government and human service organizations may be using the list to determine eligibility for services, said Williams, the county spokesman.
Sister Carmen and The Association for Community Living will continue covering the cost of the adjoining hotel rooms where Valdez and her kids have been staying in for about 30 days. To help fill in remaining gaps for Valdez, The Association for Community Living has also provided groceries, hotel payments, a $5,000 check and several gift cards.
Friends and people from the Rock Creek Church community have helped Valdez with smaller cleaning tasks, including hauling away damaged belongings.
Valdez’s two sons received new stuffed animals in the mail after Valdez asked in a neighborhood Facebook group if anyone could provide replacements.
“They have been so amazing, but it’s been rough,” she said of the organizations and people who have helped her family.
Sister Carmen had focused for 50 years primarily on helping people facing economic hardships, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But now, the organization is seeing a rush of new clients who lost everything after the fire and need help.
People who need services can now visit the organization’s food bank, set up like a grocery store. Sister Carmen’s thrift shop is also open to fire victims who need clothing and other household items for free. The Lafayette nonprofit has provided more than $220,000 in gift cards to address individual needs and is also helping keep people housed until they can return to their homes.
Mayne, the FEMA spokesman, said people looking for housing and other forms of help from the organization can visit the Disaster Recovery Center to start the applications process, visit disasterassistance.gov or call FEMA’s helpline at 1-800-621-3362.
FEMA and the Small Business Administration are still operating at the center but the local Disaster Assistance Center organizations previously stationed there have moved to providing online services. Renters who were affected by the fire can apply for a federally backed low interest disaster loan of up to $40,000 with rates as low as 1.4% through the Small Business Administration or call its Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or email email@example.com, said Richard Tillery, public information officer for the organization.
Other services for fire victims without insurance:
The Colorado Association of Realtors Foundation recently received a $2 million grant from the Realtors Relief Foundation for victims of the Marshall fire. Eligible renters and homeowners who apply may receive up to $3,000 in assistance per impacted household to cover monthly housing obligations. The funds can be used for housing expenses, including mortgage or rental relief and can help others, like Valdez, who are uninsured or underinsured. The funds can support people who are struggling to pay for a new rental they’re forced to obtain because of displacement from their primary home, said Amy McDermott, executive director of Colorado Realtors Association Charities.
Jewish Family Services is also accepting online applications from families in need of financial assistance after the fire. Right after the blaze, the organization began offering emergency financial assistance and gift cards for people who needed help obtaining food and clothing. They also offered assistance with hotel payments or finding a place to stay. The organization has provided laptops to parents filing insurance claims and school-aged children whose computers were damaged in the disaster. Jewish Family Services also is providing free crisis counseling sessions for anyone in Boulder County. More than 120 licensed mental health providers are available, said Jenny Herren, the nonprofit’s director of marketing and communications.
The Cajun Navy Ground Force is also focusing on filling in gaps not met by larger disaster organizations, including help with smoke and ash clean up, said Stacy Parker, director of operations for the organization.
Boulder County officials are also working with Elevations Credit Union to connect people with financial assistance, if they have a home deemed uninhabitable. People whose homes are uninhabitable due to smoke and ash damage also will likely qualify for financial assistance through Community Foundation Boulder County, Williams said.