Though it’s been more than a decade since the Fourmile Canyon Fire, David Takahashi hasn’t forgotten the smell of smoke in the air or the bright orange color of the sun that day.
Takahashi, a longtime Boulder County resident, lost his home in the fire, which burned through about 6,000 acres and destroyed 169 homes on Sept. 6, 2010, in the mountains just west of Boulder.
In terms of acreage alone, the fire was similarly sized to the Marshall Fire, which scorched some 6,000 acres and destroyed about 1,000 homes across eastern Boulder County after igniting Dec. 30. However, given the extensive property loss, the Marshall Fire is now the most destructive in state history, and the Denver Post reported that it’s the 10th-most destructive in the country’s history.
It’s been nearly 12 years since Takahashi lost a home, but he has an intimate understanding of what thousands in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County are now going through. The experience of loss after a natural disaster is at once both universal and wholly unique.
And while Takahashi continues to remember the smells and sights of the fire that ultimately engulfed his home, the loss is another piece he won’t soon forget.
“To this day, I’m still remembering things that I lost that I forgot I had,” he said.
Midst of recovery
Those affected by the Dec. 30 Marshall Fire are now in the midst of recovery. It’s something that, perhaps more than anything, those with experience emphasize will take time.
Experts generally explain the recovery process in phases.
And in some ways, recovery begins well before the natural disaster occurs, according to Kevin Klein, director of the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the state entity tasked with leading and supporting response and recovery from hazardous events such as wildfires.
Municipalities create recovery plans with the understanding that disasters will happen.
Once they do, the short-term work begins.
“What we want to do No. 1 is provide safe, immediate sheltering,” Klein said.
The short-term recovery work typically includes the weeks after the fire, when officials are working to ensure people have shelter and are taking care of their immediate needs.
In the intermediate term, recovery includes assisting with longer-term housing, whether that’s rental assistance or noncongregate sheltering.
But officials view long-term recovery as the point when the whole community recovers. People may view that differently, Klein acknowledged. But often it’s thought of as the time when displaced residents are in permanent housing and businesses have recovered.
“The most challenging part of it, I think, is just getting your arms around the enormity of it, how big it is,” Klein said. “And then understanding that it’s going to take some time.
“We’re moving really, really fast on this … but it’s not fast enough for someone who’s been directly impacted by it,” he added. “We totally understand that.”
Recovery takes years
Long-term recovery can last years. According to research published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, 25% of buildings destroyed by wildfires across the country are rebuilt within five years.
Locally, Klein noted the state is still in the midst of a few projects from the 2013 flood.
For further perspective, three people who lost homes in the 2020 Calwood Fire are in the active rebuilding phase, according to information Boulder County Disaster Recovery Manager Garry Sanfaçon shared in a community meeting for impacted unincorporated Boulder County residents
It took about 19 months for Debby Martin, a Boulder County resident who lost her home in the Fourmile Canyon Fire, to rebuild.
Though losing a home isn’t easy, the process of rebuilding ended up being an enjoyable one for Martin and her family. She said it felt collaborative and creative.
“Part of it is that we have some inherent resiliency that derives from who we are, from our families, from our friends, from our coworkers,” Martin said in a community meeting on rebuilding.
“It’s a journey,” she said. “You learn a lot about yourself and your desires and your community in this journey.”
Charlie Pellerin, who lost his home in the 2020 Calwood Fire, echoed those sentiments. Initially, he wasn’t planning to rebuild, but he changed his mind, given the lack of housing stock and high costs.
Both Martin and Pellerin used the rebuilding process as an opportunity to build more efficient and wildfire-resistant homes. Though at least some of this was a county requirement, both noted it was one of the pieces that excited them about the notion of rebuilding.
“When this ends, we’re going to be so much better off,” Pellerin said in the community meeting.
While the long-term work can be time-consuming, Klein maintained that the fact that Boulder County has experienced several other natural disasters in the past decade won’t negatively affect its ability to recover from the most current one.
“It informs what we do. I don’t think that it complicates it,” he said. “But it does lend itself to lessons learned.”
In fact, Boulder County’s experience in disaster response was a benefit, at least in the sense that it had a debris removal plan and staff members who understand what’s required.
For example, the Marshall Fire is the fifth natural disaster Sanfaçon has worked on in Boulder County since beginning disaster recovery work in 2010.
The individual path to recovery
In the aftermath of the Marshall Fire, those who sustained property damage or whose home was destroyed were required to submit a right of entry/hold harmless agreement, which allows a person to opt in or out of debris removal and removes the county’s liability as it conducts the work or contracts for it.
Since fire generally destroys the structural integrity of a foundation, it must be evaluated by a Colorado licensed structural engineer. If the foundation is not reusable, it should be removed as part of the property cleanup, according to Boulder County.
A deconstruction permit is required for the removal of the home’s foundation. The county has an online portal to apply for such a permit, and that information is available on its Marshall Fire Recovery page at bit.ly/3G1iqsg.
In terms of rebuilding and repairs on homes impacted by the fire, Boulder County’s Deputy Director of Community Planning and Permitting Kim Sanchez said the county works to prioritize and expedite those affected by the Marshall Fire. Those projects will be handled separately from other construction and development projects, she noted.
Construction projects are in high demand in unincorporated Boulder County, so the county will work outside its typical review process for those who experienced devastation from the Marshall Fire. There are codes that outline the procedures following a disaster and allow the county to develop a specific review process for those rebuilding.
“We want to make sure you are able to rebuild what you had before with some minimal oversight,” Sanchez said.
Still, the site review and permitting process is not the end of the story. People also must work with their insurance companies, assuming they lived in a home that was insured.
Sorting through claims
According to Colorado’s Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway, it’s crucial to begin the claims process as soon as possible. People should request a copy of their policy, which insurance companies are required to provide within three business days.
As an insurance company assesses what it owes, there will be a difference in the actual cash value, or the amount the item was worth at the time of the loss, and the replacement cost value, or the amount it costs to replace that item. The initial claim payments are likely to be the actual cash value with the replacement cost payable when the property is repaired or replaced, Conway noted.
There are different parts of a policy, including coverage of the building, other structures, personal property and additional living expenses.
Per Colorado law, if a person’s primary residence was a total loss, a company must offer to cover at least 30% of the contents, and all those who are insured and lost a home are due that money now.
“That payment is not contingent on an inventory,” Conway said.
And Conway noted documentation is the most crucial part of it all. Save receipts for any work completed or estimates provided and be sure to take as many photographs and videos as possible, he said.
For Takahashi, working with the insurance company was perhaps the most challenging part of it all.
Ultimately, he and his wife bought a home in Boulder’s Martin Acres neighborhood with insurance money, and they outfitted it to be fully energy efficient.
They moved in ahead of Boulder’s 2013 flood, when their new neighborhood was on the edge of an area among the hardest hit when South Boulder Creek flooded. Given current pandemic-related supply chain constraints, Takahashi worries it will be challenging for people to rebuild in the time frame required by insurance policies. Takahashi had three years.
When it comes to the process of rebuilding a home, organization is key to expediting the process, according to Ashley Douglas, vice president of the Colorado division of Reconstruction Experts, a general contracting company.
“Our job is to come in and bring more care and communication to the mix,” Douglas said. “As you can imagine, in a fire loss, literally every trade is going to be involved in the rebuilding process.”
It’s important to hire a general contractor with certifications in water, fire and smoke damage and mold mitigation, she noted.
The timeline is largely dependent on the size of the property and the complexity of the project.
But rebuilding can take years, and it’s likely to take longer without organization and creativity, Douglas said. For example, with the current supply chain issues, Reconstruction Experts works to explore options and consider replacement materials that may be more readily available.
Losses extend past the physical home, encompassing the photographs, family heirlooms, memories and other items it contained that cannot be replaced.
“This is their home,” Douglas said, speaking to the importance of handling the situation with care. “It’s profoundly devastating.”
As part of the post-fire recovery process, the insurance company requires an inventory of everything lost, Takahashi noted. That can be a challenging task to accomplish, considering there are still days when he remembers an item lost in the fire.
Plus, circumstances are somewhat different now, with Boulder County in the midst of a severe affordable housing shortage that will force many who lost their home to leave the area permanently.
A report from Boulder County’s Community Foundation, for example, notes that housing costs have risen so high across the county that some have declared an end to affordable housing, given the total lack of entry level housing options.
“There’s going to be a world of hurt,” Takahashi said.