More than six weeks after the most costly blaze in Colorado’s history, many victims of the Marshall fire are facing the next uphill battle: Insurance recovery.
It’s been well established that many residents are underinsured or not insured at all. This comes with its own challenges, largely met by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
But even those who are fully insured are facing recovery challenges, particularly those whose homes are damaged due to smoke and ash rather than a total loss.
The best way I can describe this type of damage is this: Imagine you are standing directly in the line of smoke a few feet away from a campfire. The heavy smoke and ash probably makes you cough and move to another spot.
Now imagine if that campfire expanded to the size of 6,200 acres, continuing to burn overnight a mere 200 feet from your house. That’s the plume of toxic smoke and debris that has infiltrated homes adjacent to burn areas.
Here’s a short list of common clean-up required to restore a property: Attic insulation replacement, duct cleaning, floor, wall and ceiling scrubbing, repainting, carpet replacement, window blind replacement, refrigerator coil cleaning, dryer vent cleaning, smoke detector replacement and extended industrial level HEPA filtering, to name a few.
Then there’s cleaning all the stuff inside.
Nearly every item owned in the home needs to be removed and specially cleaned for toxic smoke and ash — assuming it doesn’t go straight into the trash.
The cost of restoring a home, as opposed to rebuilding it, is still exceptionally high, even if it’s not often included in initial disaster totals.
Personal property claims for household items are easily in the many thousands of dollars for a single person, and homeowner claims can land in the many tens of thousands. This is in addition to the thousands of dollars incurred by being displaced for months. No wonder insurance companies fight not to pay — it was already the highest cost wildfire in the state at over a half billion dollars, and now it’s hundreds of thousands more.
Anyone who has ever been in a fight with an insurance company knows what I’m talking about. The endless back and forth, delay tactics and nickel and diming of every little thing. There’s a reason insurance companies get a bad rap, and they should probably be treated more as a public service like utilities — although that’s another conversation entirely.
The important thing is that victims struggling with insurance companies have an asset they may not know about: They can report their complaints to the state for assistance.
The Department of Regulatory Affairs, or DORA for short, has a Division of Insurance that is available to provide resources on how to manage your insurance claim. You can ask questions, read prepared packets on insurance statutes and regulations in Colorado or schedule an advisory appointment. Most importantly, if needed, you can file a complaint against your agent or your insurance company if they are not holding up their end of the contract you’ve paid for.
If you choose to file, as I recently did, learn from my mistakes: First, don’t start your claim late at night unless you’re prepared to be awake for at least two more hours. Second, have all documentation to support your complaint prior to starting. Third, be prepared to write two, 2,000-word statements. The first statement is a summary of the complaint(s) you have. The second is a summary of what you expect for reasonable resolution. Be concise and specific.
Most importantly, know your policy and document everything; it’s never too late to start. Get a copy of your declaration page, and ask for a copy of the specific policies for the company. Know exactly what your policy covers for additional living expenses, or “ALE” in the insurance world, and property damage. Do not communicate with adjusters and representatives via phone. Get all of their instructions and demands, delays or denials in writing.
Insurance recovery is timely and costly, but you are not alone. The state may be able to provide assistance. And, if you need to file a formal complaint, don’t hesitate to do so.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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