Peter Dente, 73, wishes his house had burned in the Marshall fire, to the ground, like 18 others in his neighborhood west of Louisville.
If it had, he and his wife would be planning to move back into their six-bedroom, four-bathroom home, instead of waiting for their insurance company to make good on contractual promises. Dente said he wishes his insurer would offer a higher reimbursement payment to help him tear down the unsalvageable house so he can rebuild.
“If our house had burned to the ground, our house would have been halfway rebuilt by now,” he said Monday afternoon. “At least nine of our immediate neighbors … are already building back and they are going to be in by the end of the year.”
The Dentes are among 122 households in the Marshall fire zone whose homes are so severely contaminated by smoke and ash that they’re uninhabitable, a condition public health researchers describe as “a disaster inside” that has left the homeowners in limbo and wrangling with chronic stress and uncertainty.
More than a year after the Marshall fire swept across southern Boulder County, killing two people and destroying nearly 1,100 homes, a study led by researchers at the University of Colorado Denver and the Colorado School of Public Health found that while about 440 homeowners have begun to rebuild, people earning less than $75,000 a year are having a harder time making progress.
Those whose homes were not destroyed are in a sort of twilight zone battling with insurance companies that won’t cover the cost to fully remediate or tear down the uninhabitable structures. Some of the people who have homes still standing — like the Dentes — said, even though their belongings are still inside, they’re likely contaminated, and they wish they could just start over from scratch.
People with homes damaged by smoke and ash feel like they’ve been overlooked or abandoned, said Katie Dickinson, assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, who helped lead the Marshall Fire Unified Research Study and who also survived the blaze.
“We think that’s an important finding,” Dickinson said. “Those folks (with standing homes) feel like they’ve fallen through the cracks and that there isn’t a clear path.”
Many homeowners who found themselves in this predicament are now in limbo, with some reporting they’re underinsured.
Study leader Courtney Welton-Mitchell, an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, said it makes sense that studies would find higher rates of distress among people who are displaced, experiencing ongoing chronic stressors and are struggling with “ambiguity” during the rebuilding process. “In the broader mental health literature, those are all factors typically associated with distress and lower rates of well-being,” she said.
Lanene Dente, 75, misses spending time with loved ones in her Boulder County home. Many neighbors are excited about moving back in while she and her husband are still at a “standstill.”
“I just don’t feel like anybody is supporting us at this point in our life,” she said during a tearful interview at their damaged home on Tuesday.
“I still plan to be around for a long time. I’m not giving up yet,” she said. “We have to let the process work itself through. But we do feel like time has been stolen from us.”
Dente’s house has been tested by three industrial hygienists. The one hired by Dente’s insurance company said remediation should include wiping down the walls, vacuuming the floors, replacing insulation and repainting.
Two others hired by Dente disagreed, and said the house is infused with toxic contaminants, cannot be restored to livable conditions and must be torn down and rebuilt. In total, that would likely cost between $3 million and $4 million.
Dente’s insurance policy states the insurer will pay the reconstruction cost for the dwelling, even if the amount is greater than the coverage limit. However, his policy amount was for just over $1.3 million on the date of the fire.
The sticking point, he said, is whether it is possible to restore the home from its current state. When the Dentes returned to the house after the fire, the roof vent had melted in some places. Screens on the outside of windows had blackened and the couple could barely see across the living room because smoke was still thick inside the home. Wood decks are still blackened and paint on the exterior of the home is bubbled and discolored.
“We believe the only solution is to tear down the house and rebuild it and the insurance company is flat out refusing to even consider that,” Dente said. “So the only thing we’ll have to do is sue them. But the problem with suing them is that the cost of doing that is so exorbitant.”
Dente worries that if he does sue his insurer, there won’t be enough money left to rebuild after attorney’s fees and taxes are deducted.
Their insurance company did not respond to two requests for comment this week.
The Marshall fire was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, destroying buildings valued at $513 million.
Most Marshall fire survivors said they would definitely rebuild or would probably rebuild, according to the Marshall Fire Unified Research Survey, which includes Dickinson, Welton-Mitchell and others.
For example, 80% of people in Superior said they plan to rebuild compared with 79% of people in Louisville and 72% of people in unincorporated neighborhoods, like the one Dente and his wife lived in.
Only 8% of people in Superior said they probably or definitely would not rebuild compared with 14% of people in Louisville and 17% of people in unincorporated areas. About 3% of study participants who lost their home had sold their property by January of this year, according to the survey.
By March 24, 440 building permits had been issued inside the fire zone and a handful of families had moved back home. “These signs of recovery are encouraging and should be celebrated, but past disasters teach us that recovery is a long, uneven process,” researchers wrote in their analysis.
The researchers surveyed Marshall fire survivors six months after the fire and one year after the disaster to better understand who was able to rebuild quickest and why.
The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes
Cost and time to rebuild were major factors driving people’s decision to rebuild, study leaders wrote. And that was not surprising, they said.
People with higher incomes have the resources to rebuild fastest and are more likely to be further along in the rebuilding process, when compared with their lower-income counterparts.
Households with fewer financial resources are falling behind.
Among the households making less than $75,000 per year, 70% are still in stage one of the process, such as demolishing the home, removing debris, selecting a builder and contracting with a designer or architect, compared with 38% of people making more than $200,000, according to the study.
Similarly, insurance coverage can slow a household’s ability to move through the rebuilding process. Just 4% of survey respondents expected their insurance to cover all their rebuilding costs.
“These findings highlight the long road many Marshall fire survivors still face as they rebuild. But policymakers can help to ensure a more equitable recovery,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers said Monday that as reconstruction drags on, it will become harder for people with fewer financial resources to return to their communities. Those people may explore options including selling their lots and moving to places where housing costs are lower. But finding such a place on the Front Range is difficult, said Andrew Rumbach, a senior fellow at The Urban Institute, who helped conduct the study.
Dente and his wife are living on Social Security and retirement benefits in a rented house nearby.
“We couldn’t even go out and get a mortgage to pay for this to replace it,” he said of their home. “And we don’t know what we’re going to do.”
Shortly after the fire, the insurance company encouraged the couple to move all of their belongings out of the house to make way for cleaning to get underway. But after the couple paid a professional company, recommended by their insurer, $120,000 to pack up and move a portion of their belongings into storage spaces, the couple’s privately-hired industrial hygienists determined the home was unsalvageable. The couple then immediately stopped paying the company to remove their belongings because they suspect the home and all their possessions are contaminated and beyond repair.
“They flat out lied to us that we could remediate and save our belongings by paying some company an exorbitant fee to pack it up,” Dente said of his insurance company.
After the fire, Boulder County leaders required property owners to remove any burned landscaping, which for the Dentes included removing dirt and 43 mature trees on their one-acre property. The insurer covered only a small amount of that cost, they said.
The insurer also won’t cover most of the more than $15,000 cost to repair below-grade landscape timbers used to stabilize the bank of an irrigation ditch that burned during the fire, Dente said.
The Dentes may not be able to afford the cost to tear the home down and rebuild. They had planned to use any equity gained from the home to live on during retirement.
“It was worth, before the fire, between $1.7 million and $2 million,” Dente said. “We were going to be here for the next 10 or 15 years or so and we probably would have retired to something more modest.”
Now, multiple times per week, investors are offering the couple about $500,000 for their house, much less than it’s worth, likely because the developers have plans to tear it down, the couple said.
The couple had been outdoorsy before the fire, often tending to their sprawling flower and herb gardens that burned in the fire.
“We have some good days and some bad days,” Lanene Dente said. “We’re not sleeping well. We’re eating poorly. And we don’t do anything. We’re lethargic. It’s hard to find motivation to even just go out and take a walk.”
What fire leaves behind, physically
The researchers also did physical inspections of homes that people in the community volunteered as study sites. There they found “lots and lots of dust,” according to a summary of the findings.
Dust samples from about a dozen homes showed the particles were a combination of windblown soil, ash from the fire and typical dust found in homes. By February, most pollutants had decreased back to normal levels.
Shortly after the fire, people reported itchy or watery eyes, headaches, dry coughs and sore throats. More than half of survey respondents reported disrupted sleep because of stress. Those who have moved back into smoke-damaged homes reported symptoms mostly occurred when they were inside of their homes.
Some of those residents still have symptoms more than a year later, even after their houses have been professionally cleaned. Dente and his wife still have lingering symptoms, such as watery eyes, dry cough and sore throats, especially, when they briefly visit their home to pick up the mail and repair external damage they can’t afford to hire a professional to do.
Nine months after the fire, some residents reported rashes and burning sensations after having their homes professionally cleaned and even after toxic smells had dissipated, according to the study.
A higher number of people who had standing homes damaged by smoke and ash reported feeling “distressed” when compared to those whose homes completely burned during the fire, the study found.
“Having studied disasters in Colorado for the better part of 15 years, this one is different because it was in an area not considered a wildfire-prone area,” said Deserai Crow, associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, who helped lead the study. “I think it highlights our changing environment and our development patterns and that we need to be paying attention to that going forward in scenarios of climate change.”
More policies and programs that provide rebuilding assistance for people with fewer resources should continue to be a top priority, study leaders said, to prevent inequity from becoming more pronounced for Marshall fire survivors still recovering.
Earlier this year, leaders of the housing nonprofit East County Housing Opportunity Coalition asked Colorado lawmakers to include a health-based standard into the law that determines when a home is safe enough to occupy. Currently, there is no such standard for homes, but there is one for federal workplaces and rooms that had been used as methamphetamine labs, Dente said.
Certification for industrial hygienists is optional. Dente said a credential should be required.
Some Marshall fire survivors cleaned their homes, moved back in and then got sick, only to clean the homes a second time, before they got sick again, Dente said. In some cases, insurers said they wouldn’t pay for the repeated remediation and claimed industrial hygienists incorrectly cleaned the home.
“Now they’ve got finger-pointing going on,” Dente said. “They just don’t want to pay out the money.”
Insurance companies are “all about” maximizing the money they get to keep and minimizing payouts to survivors, Dente said.
“If you live in a place where your house is susceptible to fire damage and you’re contacted by one of these organizations that talk about fire mitigation activities and about cutting down landscaping around your house, my advice to those homeowners is, don’t do it,” he said.
“Let your house burn,” he said. “You are much better off if your house just burns to the ground.”