When the house — still standing but mitigated for smoke damage — went on the market, it was within a block-and-a-half of piles of ash and melted metal that were remnants of a neighborhood gone up in flames.
Real estate agent Adam Sloat knew he faced a tough sell, since anyone who came to tour the home in Coal Creek Ranch in Louisville had to drive through the soot-scarred aftermath of the most destructive fire in Colorado history. Sloat’s own home had been just three blocks away, one of more than 1,000 gobbled up by the wind-swept Marshall fire that roared through Louisville, Superior and unincorporated parts of Boulder County a year ago this week.
Potential buyers had questions about smoke damage, though the home was fully restored, Sloat said. For some, there was too much uncertainty — what would the neighborhood look like when it was finally rebuilt? How long would it take for the trees to grow? Others were scared off by the destruction. “For some people, a neighborhood that has that kind of fire damage feels unsafe,” Sloat said.
But the home sold in five days. For $1.18 million, about $200,000 over the asking price.
The sale, boosted by Sloat’s optimism that the neighborhood would someday look better than before the fire and property values would climb, is one among hundreds of stories that illustrate what it takes to rebuild a community.
The Marshall fire: One year later
It has been one year since the Marshall fire destroyed hundreds of houses and businesses in parts of Louisville, Superior and Boulder County. One year of sorting through what was lost. One year of trying to create a new normal. And one year of making a new home.
Read our series revisiting the Marshall fire one year later. >> SERIES
A year after the Marshall fire, the residents who had vowed to regain the sense of community the blaze stripped away in a matter of hours, are scattered. Just one home has been rebuilt. Other homeowners who got a jump on the permitting and rebuilding process are on track for July and August move-in dates. As of this week, fewer than 170 permits had been issued by the cities of Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County for the 1,084 homes destroyed in the fire.
An unknown number of families bought new homes elsewhere rather than wait on a rebuilding process likely to take years. And the market is saturated with empty lots while property owners who decided not to rebuild are banking on the notion that vacant lots in the sought-after towns of Louisville and Superior — if not now, then someday — will become a hot commodity.
The Brodsky family, who bought a home in Superior, has not yet listed the lot where their house of 12 years once stood. But they tend to it, mowing the weeds, planting grass seed and picking up debris blown in by the wind. The family, including two teenagers, gets quiet when they’re on the property.
In the year since the fire sparked, investigators have combed through 186 pieces of evidence and followed up on more than 200 tips in their search to determine who or what caused the fire, according to the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, who worked alongside federal and state agencies.
Investigators are now reviewing body camera footage, documents and photos with the district attorney’s office.
Authorities originally said the fire likely started from downed power lines, but workers found no downed lines in the ignition area, Boulder County’s Office of Emergency Management said last December.
The sheriff’s office is reviewing a range of possible causes for the fire, including lightning, people burning debris, campfires, fireworks, underground mines and cigarettes, and plans to complete its investigation early next year, the office said.
“There is a nostalgia with each visit,” Gwen Brodsky said. “There is almost a reverence, that sense that something important happened here. It was a deeply meaningful space in our life.”
Sloat, his wife and their 10-year-old twins have been living in a rented house in Boulder for the past year. They’re determined to return to Coal Creek Ranch, where their cul-de-sac burned to the ground. The Sloats made up their minds to rebuild within days, and met a custom builder for coffee in January. Their move-in date is tentatively scheduled for July, making them one of the first families that will return to the neighborhood on the southwest side of Louisville.
It’s been a long year since the eerie yellow smoke blew in, since Sloat’s wife and kids and little dog fled to a relative’s home in Boulder, since the last neighbor to leave the cul-de-sac texted that it would all burn.
The Sloats could afford to rebuild because Sloat had, fortuitously, adjusted their insurance policy four months before the fire. Had he not done so, they would have been paid $400,000 less. So for them, rebuilding on the same lot where they had already had a mortgage for seven years made financial sense.
Their new house will have 10-foot ceilings, a larger mudroom and more strategically placed closets. As a Realtor and a Coal Creek Ranch resident, Sloat wonders often about what the neighborhood will look like in a few years.
There is no history to go by, really, he said. In parts of Boulder, for example, there’s a known — and lucrative — price point for razing old homes building new ones in certain areas. But this is an entire neighborhood gone, then being rebuilt by various builders in unique styles. Still, most lots are going for $300,000-$500,000.
“It’s guess work,” Sloat said. “No one knows. You almost never have a house that is burned and has to be rebuilt.”
But now, there are hundreds.
166 permits, almost 900 to go
The rebuilding process has felt slow, even though experts warned soon after the fire that it would take three or four years.
More than 1,000 homes were destroyed in a county that averaged 1,500 new housing permits a year for the past three years, according to census data. That’s 1,500 for an entire county compared to permits for two cities and unincorporated Boulder County.
Getting to the point of even filing a permit to build a new house takes time. And most homeowners in the fire-ravaged areas are not at that point. As of October, 1,150 housing permits had been filed in Boulder County since January. According to Louisville city officials, the number of permits issued is at 153 so far this year, with 123 related to Marshall fire rebuilds. That’s four to five times above an annual average of 33.7 permits from 2018 to 2020. In 2021, there were just 14 single-family permits.
About 75 members of the Home Builders Association of Metro Denver have volunteered their time and expertise to help families affected by the fires. In November, only about 166 permits had been pulled with 48 in process, “meaning almost 900 homes remain to be processed for rebuild — far more than the current builders can promptly process to completion,” according to the builder organization.
Unless they’re custom builders, many home builders aren’t equipped to build a single house in an existing neighborhood. They typically buy several lots and build in a new subdivision.
But local builders like Boulder Creek Neighborhoods in Louisville jumped in to help their neighbors. The company spent months talking to residents and came up with 11 different house plans for customers. Floor plans range from 1,500 square feet to 4,200 square feet and some customization is allowed. On average, the base price for a rebuilt house is $480,000 though customers can add upgrades like a finished basement or a three-car garage. About 80 customers are under contract. Construction on the first houses began in October.
“We wanted to serve as best as we can and rebuild our community and get friends, family and neighbors back into homes as quickly as possible,” said Bridgette Cole, Boulder Creek’s director of external projects and rebuild coordinator lead for the company’s Marshall fire operations. “Many of our trade partners that we work with on a daily basis on our projects really wanted to be involved as well.”
Boulder County reduced permit fees and streamlined part of the process. People who wanted to rebuild the same house could apply for a permit immediately and bypass some of the newer local building codes, including energy-efficiency and fire suppression codes. About 95% of customers who are rebuilding chose to opt in and upgrade “based on the incentives offered,” Cole added.
If no new contracts are signed, the 80 houses under contract by Boulder Creek should be completed by the first quarter of 2024.
“One year would be an incredibly tight timeline for anybody, even in a perfect scenario where it was non-disaster related,” Cole said.
Boulder County housing prices higher than much of Colorado
In the year since the fire, interest rates have doubled and inflation hit the highest level in 40 years. And while average home-sale prices have declined this year, the monthly cost has grown significantly from a year ago.
In Colorado, a median-priced home, at $580,000 in November, translated into a $3,323 monthly mortgage payment, assuming a traditional 30-month mortgage with a 20% down payment. A year ago the same-priced house cost $900 less per month because interest rates were half what they are today, or 3.11% vs today’s 6.31%, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
The median sales price for single-family houses in Louisville, Superior and Boulder County was more volatile than the rest of the state in the first half of 2022, according to data from Redfin, which tracks local housing prices. Buyers scrambled to buy new homes, which increased demand in the Spring. But with fewer homes available and higher interest rates, prices began to fall.
Houses are also more expensive in Boulder County. In November, the median-priced house in the county was $725,000, down 5.2% from last year’s $764,380. Even with the lower price, the monthly payment is $1,000 higher than it would have cost a year ago.
“It all relates to interest rates,” said Kelly Moye, a Realtor at Compass Real Estate who said she has worked with 65 clients who lost their homes in the Louisville and Superior area. “When rates went up in April — they went up a whole point in one week — it was right after Easter. I remember really well. Everything literally changed. Bidding wars stopped. Offer deadlines stopped. Appraisal gaps stopped. Buyers just sort of went, ‘Oh, my gosh. We can’t do this. We’re not going to move.’”
One Boulder County client was hoping to move to a smaller house but reluctantly decided to stay put after rates shot up.
“They had a 2.875% interest rate and when they looked at buying a new house (at) 6.5%, even a lower price house would cost them more than staying where they are,” said Moye, also a spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of Realtors.
Nevertheless, homes in Louisville and Superior are selling faster than the rest of the county even though sales have slowed since last year. In Boulder County, year-to-date home sales are down 24.2%, while they’re only down 6.6% and 21.3% in Superior and Louisville, respectively. Moye cautioned that a lot of sales came in the first part of the year before interest rates started shooting up.
Fewer houses are selling these days but, she added, “houses are still selling in 28 days or less.”
Lots of lots
In Louisville and Superior, a record-number of vacant lots hit the market this year. As of mid-December, Moye counted 74 active vacant land listings in Superior and Louisville.
“That is a ton,” Moye said. “We typically see zero. I mean, typically you’re not going to see anything like that number.”
And they’re not moving, she said. “They’ve been on 119 days, 245 days, 83 days, 68 days.”
So far this year, 36 vacant lots in the two towns have sold, compared with 10 last year and six in 2020, according to the real estate industry’s multiple-listing service.
“So many of the people who have planned to rebuild have decided not to, which is very interesting because so many of them thought we’ll get our insurance money and we’ll make it through,” Moye said. “It has just been so challenging for them to make that happen, that they’ve turned around and listed their lots for sale.”
Marshall fire victims bumped to front of permit process
The Marshall fire’s destruction was on a scale like never before in Colorado. In all, 1,084 homes were destroyed and 149 were damaged. As for commercial buildings, seven were destroyed and 30 were damaged, according to the county’s Marshall fire recovery dashboard.
The 166 building permits issued by unincorporated Boulder County and the towns of Louisville and Superior are just a fraction of those that burned. The process is arduous, despite a team of workers at the county and volunteers trying to speed it up.
The permit process includes an application form and architectural plan, plus information from water and sewer service providers, said Dale Case, a director at Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting. And it’s often more difficult in rural parts of the county because of coordination with service providers.
People applying for permits whose homes were destroyed during the Marshall fire get priority. Still, it typically takes six weeks, Case said. “Our goal is four weeks or less, so we are working to get to that goal,” he said.
Currently, there’s a five- or six-week delay to begin reviewing permits for non-Marshall fire permit applicants, he said.
Some residents choosing not to rebuild are elderly and don’t want to spend the time and money, according to the department.
“Each situation is different and everybody is assessing what their needs are for how they’re going to be living over the next year or so,” Case said. “I think it’s a really good collaborative effort, so far, with these designers, architects, builders and those property owners who have unfortunately lost their homes as we move forward.”
“Over the next three to six months, I think we’re going to see a whole bunch more permits come in.”
About 50% to 60% of people in communities that experience a disaster like the Marshall fire rebuild within the first three years, said Jeff Durbin, city manager for Louisville.
Across Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County, 42% of homeowners with a permit are planning homes that meet higher standards for energy efficiency and have better indoor air quality and fire resistance. That makes them eligible for incentives available through Xcel Energy and the Colorado Energy Office, said Zac Swank, deputy director of the Office of Sustainability, Climate Action and Resilience, which serves Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County.
“That’s a record number,” he said. “California, after the Tubbs fire in Sonoma County, ran a similar program and they had only 6% participation.”
In July, Boulder County launched Recovery Navigators, a free service that offers short- and long-term support, either in person or virtually, to help residents navigate the recovery and rebuilding process. The navigators are available for all Marshall fire-affected homeowners who need help accessing financial assistance, mental health services and other information, Swank said.
Boulder County commissioners recently approved a reduction in building permit fees for Marshall fire rebuilds on Dec. 6 after community members raised concerns about the high cost of construction while many were navigating the challenges of being underinsured after the fire, Case said.
The county reduced its building permit fees by $4,400 to help offset the cost for people rebuilding after the fire, Case said. The commissioners also approved — in unincorporated Boulder County, Louisville and Superior — up to a $3,500 rebate on building supply taxes, he said.
“Hopefully it’s doing a bit to help these folks get back” into their homes, he said. “This is not just people coming in and building a house. These are our friends. These are our coworkers. These are folks that we know.”
Lack of enough insurance coverage contributed to delays
As many as two-thirds of the people who lost their homes in the Marshall fire lacked enough insurance to fully cover their rebuilding costs, according to an analysis by the Colorado Division of Insurance.
Nearly $7 million of federal funding was set aside solely for Marshall fire victims who exhausted all other financial support, through a grant designed to support victims of natural disasters. An additional $4.6 million came as general recovery dollars, some of which will go toward mitigation work, according to Colorado’s Division of Local Affairs, which is managing the funds.
Applications for the funding opened earlier this month. The program aims to help families rebuild in their community using fire-resistant and energy-saving building materials that “go above and beyond local code requirements,” the division said.
“Most of our homeowners had to seek SBA loans or private lending agencies or dig into other personal buckets because … what was covered under their policy was not enough to rebuild,” said Cole with Boulder Creek Neighborhoods.
Those who are at or below 150% of the area median income can apply for rebuilding grants in the form of forgivable loans. People who were unable to access federal home rebuilding loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration are eligible for traditional loans up to $50,000, according to the division.
Insurance that covers additional living expenses for those who were forced out of their homes due to a natural disaster is about to expire for many with policies only providing coverage for up to 12 months.
In an open letter to insurance companies with policyholders in the Marshall fire area, the Colorado Division of Insurance asked insurance companies to extend the ALE coverage for up to 24 months.
“Construction for some only started this summer, as people had to wait for the debris from all of the impacted homes to be cleared. There are many others with even more recent construction starts,” the division wrote earlier this month. “All of these factors have made it impossible for people to rebuild their homes in just one year.”
No closure until they return home
The McKee family, in Louisville, is at the forefront of those who decided to rebuild. Suzanne McKee is hoping they will move back home this summer before school starts, so she can once again watch her son and daughter head off on their bikes toward the neighborhood school as she waves from the door.
“My mama heart would be so happy,” she said.
But McKee knows better than to get her hopes up. It’s a form of self-protection because she doesn’t want to absorb another hit. Their new house, a custom-build by Feller Homes that broke ground Oct. 12, is fully framed, and the siding is going up now.
The family was skiing last year in Telluride when their house in Coal Creek Ranch burned down. All they owned was what they had packed to go skiing, including their mini-Australian shepherd, Sami. Everything left at home was destroyed, including a glass figurine holding the ashes of Suzanne’s father, who died in 2020. Her sister, who also had some of their dad’s ashes, had a new figurine made and shared some of the ashes with Suzanne.
A year later, in a rented home in Broomfield, she doesn’t feel a sense of closure, in part because they were eight hours away when the fire blew through. They won’t feel settled, McKee said, until they move back home.
“I really wish I was here because I feel like it would have brought some closure,” she said. “I just felt so disconnected. But I’m grateful that my kids didn’t go through that. I’m grateful they don’t have those memories of fleeing our home.”
On the anniversary of the fire this Friday, the McKees are planning to ski, the same as they were doing last year. This time, they’ll go to Vail, because returning to Telluride a year later would bring too much deja vu. They needed to go somewhere, though, to distract themselves from the anniversary date of when their life was uprooted.
The family’s decision to return to Muirfield Circle, along the edge of a golf course and green space along Coal Creek, was an easy one. The quick decision, and a meeting with the builder within one or two months of the fire, set them on the fast track.
“For me, it was immediate,” McKee said. “The second that we knew it was gone there was just no question for me at that point.”
In the past year, though, she has wavered, wondering whether they should have started their next chapter sooner by buying a new home. The kids, now 10 and 13, have stayed at their same school, but it’s a drive from their rented house in Broomfield, rather than a bike ride away.
The children, though, insisted on going back to the home they moved into when the oldest was a baby.
“It’s very different for everybody,” McKee said. “For us, it just won’t feel right until we can go into our home again, walk into our backyard, drive into our neighborhood.”