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Marshall fire: Coloradans devastated by past fires offer guidance

Courtney Walsh knows the question is coming.

She’s gotten it over and over again since October 2020, when the CalWood fire ripped through the foothills outside Boulder, its flames turning her family’s home into a pile of smoking ruins and charred bricks.

Everyone inevitably asks, “Are you going to rebuild?”

“I hate that word — ‘rebuild,’ ” says Walsh, 40, who’s still torn nearly 15 months later. Her family is living in a rental house, trying to figure out what comes next — and whether they want to return to the same place. “There’s no such thing as rebuilding something. You can’t rebuild something that’s already gone.”

More than 1,000 new families in Superior, Louisville and unincorporated Boulder County are now in the same position after late December’s devastating Marshall fire wiped out their homes.

The Denver Post spoke in recent days with people like Walsh who know what it’s like to lose everything, forced to start anew. They said traumatic goodbyes to their homes, including the family heirlooms, keepsakes and baby photos contained within them, during disasters ranging from the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs to the 2013 Colorado floods to 2020’s historic wildfires.

Walsh and several others detailed the myriad obstacles that came their way after those seismic events: insurance nightmares, wholescale life disruptions and mental health struggles, not to mention the difficult conversations with people who didn’t quite understand what they were going through.

When images of flames leaping between houses once again filled Coloradans’ TV screens on Dec. 30, “I couldn’t stop watching it,” said C.J. Moore, 75, who was flooded with memories of losing her own house in the Waldo Canyon fire nearly a decade ago.

At the time, it stood as the state’s most destructive wildfire, destroying 347 homes and killing two people in a collection of suburban neighborhoods after a days-old forest fire charged down the hillside, giving residents little time to get out. A year later, the nearby Black Forest fire eclipsed its destruction. It stood as the worst until the Marshall fire, which according to Boulder County’s latest assessment destroyed 1,084 homes and damaged another 149, a total residential loss estimated at $513.2 million. Dozens of businesses also were affected.

Moore rebuilt her house, as did most of her neighbors. Today, the Mountain Shadows neighborhoods exhibit few signs of the utter devastation that befell them.

She had a message Wednesday for the new fire’s still-shocked survivors: “Our hearts are with them. And they can make it through this — we did.”

Beginning of a long ordeal

But the Marshall fire survivors should steel themselves for a long, arduous, frustrating ordeal, say members of Colorado’s fellowship of disaster victims.

“It makes you more resilient,” Walsh said of her experience. “It makes you grateful for what you have. But it changes you.”

The immediate challenge facing the displaced is to initiate the insurance claim process, as many Marshall victims have done in recent days. It’s something that takes months — and in some cases longer. Often, past survivors say they leaned on others for help navigating the tricky insurance claim process, whether informally or through an official assistance office set up by local officials to aid them, similar to a new one that’s opened for Marshall fire victims in Lafayette.

Kristin Hulinsky has been living in Lakewood with her daughter ever since the East Troublesome fire engulfed the Winding River Ranch in Grand Lake, where she lived and worked as the office manager.

Fifteen months later, Hulinsky and the ranch’s owner, Travis Busse, have seen barely any insurance money for their 240-acre, multimillion-dollar property, which used to host weddings and veterans’ retreats. Some buildings weren’t insured, the two found out, while others were double-insured by different companies.

As they battle with the insurance company, Busse has turned his ranch into a dumping site for other Grand County residents who need somewhere to haul metal and concrete as they rebuild their own homes. The ranch may not host another celebratory event for a couple years.

“It’s heartbreaking to start from scratch, with no help,” Hulinsky said. The ranch owner hired a private adjuster to help with their claim, but it could take a year or two for everything to shake out in the courts. “I feel slapped in the face — it makes me not trust insurance companies at all. It’s ugly.”

Insurance woes are par for the course for families trying to resume a semblance of normalcy after natural disasters — even for those with a simpler claim for a single home. While some past victims, including Moore, recalled smooth experiences, others remembered difficulty after difficulty.

The common refrain: Be ready to be your own fierce advocate, ask a lot of questions, and push for the full coverage you’re entitled to. Some didn’t realize at first that their policies covered immediate costs, including hotel rooms, meals and basic supplies. Under state law, an insurance advance is due to a victim when a primary residence was lost.

“The insurance company will probably seem like they’re trying to railroad over the top of you,” suggested Tom Henderson, chair of the Burg Simpson law firm’s bad-faith insurance division, “but if you show you’re Johnny-on-the-spot, memorializing everything with email confirmation, the squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

Financial crunches during recovery

Gregory Simon, an associate professor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Colorado Denver, has tracked several fire recoveries. It’s an interest rooted in his own family’s weathering of the Oakland firestorm of 1991, when he was a teenager and many homes on their block burned down, though theirs was spared. He wrote a 2016 book, “Flame and Fortune in the American West.”

Many victims end up being made financially whole by their insurance, Simon said, but it takes time and persistence. And delays are possible when it comes to safely removing and disposing of the piles of toxic debris left behind by the fire, he said.

“The households that have (robust savings) will probably be OK,” Simon said, “but it’s the people who don’t have a savings account of sufficient amount that will be finding this to be more difficult. They most likely will be compensated later, but it’ll be really difficult.”

So far, more than $25 million in donations have been collected to help fill the gap, and a federal declaration has unlocked some disaster assistance aid.

Still, there’s a big risk in Colorado, where home values have risen quickly: Some families in past disasters were underinsured or hadn’t updated their policies. And in the case of floods, some victims lacked the right coverage.

It took Dan Shannon and his wife, Stephanie, four to six months to get the insurance process in motion after the East Troublesome fire consumed their log-cabin home outside Grand Lake in October 2020. They acknowledge that they won’t receive quite what the house was worth — even if their coverage is better than that of some of their neighbors, who bought homes years ago.

“I almost got a college degree in insurance from this,” said Shannon, 42, a firefighter, with a chuckle.

It’s a daunting process: The insurance company asks fire victims to detail, item by item, every possession that was in the home. That means every fork, T-shirt, pair of socks, antique or heirloom. Not everyone has documentary photos or videos to aid them.

“The whole thing is overwhelming,” said Shannon, adding that he’s already been through five adjustors.

A nonprofit called United Policyholders is among groups assisting at the new Lafayette assistance center, 1755 S. Public Road.

Mental health should be priority, too

Financial affairs are crucial to sort through, but Coloradans who’ve weathered other disasters say practicing self-care and talking to someone after such a traumatizing event are also critical.

After the CalWood fire, Walsh had her children talk to school counselors. Her son, then 7, also went to play therapy, which helps children process their emotions and deal with unresolved trauma through play-time.

Walsh started going to yoga more, focusing on meditation and eating right.

“When I lost everything, you realize your health is the only thing you actually own in this world,” she said.

Hulinsky took to heart a friend’s advice by scheduling her cries. She waited until her daughter went to sleep, then ventured to the closet to shed her tears.

“You almost look forward to those moments when you know you can cry and grieve,” she said. “Take that moment, wipe your tears and then put your big girl pants on.”

These emotions don’t go away overnight. Donna Boone says she can barely watch the news these days since the heart-wrenching images bring her back to 2013, when historic floods swept through her Lyons mobile home park, wiping it clean.

She still thinks about the items she didn’t save that day — especially her father’s barber license, the one piece she had to remember him after he died.

“It’s a long process,” Boone said this week from her mobile home park in Loveland. Lyons never rebuilt its two mobile home parks that washed away in the flood. “It takes years for people to recover. Long after it’s out of the news, people are still struggling to get everything put together to get through it.”

An immediate outpouring of support comes in the days immediately after the tragedy, disaster victims say, as government officials mobilize along with the business and nonprofit communities. But sometimes that focus wanes.

After the Waldo Canyon fire, Moore and her neighbors leaned on each other repeatedly, she said, whether for help or just a hug when they visited to dig through ashes. Another resident, Carol Lyn Lucas, said she helped organize a support group that met regularly during the recovery period, called Wonderful Waldo Women.

Simon, the CU Denver professor, said the fire victims who have social networks they can rely on tend to be more resilient. He raised a worry about the new Boulder County victims, given that Denver’s suburbs attract new arrivals.

“In many respects, it’s the recent transplants to Denver who are the most at risk and whom we should be paying attention to,” he said. “Because they don’t have that kind of social capital built up,” at least not locally.

Walsh says that after the well-wishes die down, people still need support — and encouraging words.

“It’s helpful when people touch base and say, ‘we’re checking on you,’” Walsh said. And instead of asking people if they’re going to rebuild, she suggested, simply ask how they’re doing, how they’re coping.

“It’s a higher level of humanity,” she said.

Rebuilding at last — but where?

Building a new home is a hard-won step that puts recovery within sight, past survivors say. When that happens can vary widely. After the Waldo Canyon fire, the first building permit was pulled in 29 days, said Eddie Hurt, who led the Mountain Shadows Community Association during the recovery period.

But it took as long as five years to rebuild, he said.

Clearing the debris was a Herculean effort, he and other residents recalled, one made easier by a task force called Colorado Springs Together, convened by the city’s mayor, that was able to speed up the demolition process by cutting red tape. The same group mobilized public and private resources to help residents in many other ways, too. And then for years, dozens of builders were at work on the neighborhoods’ winding streets, including some where nearly every house had burned.

“Ten years later, our neighborhood’s been not only rebuilt but it’s been restored,” Hurt said, adding: “You drive through our neighborhood today, and if you don’t look up at the mountainside, you wouldn’t know there was a fire. I like the neighborhood better — I think the people who stayed have deeper relationships. A lot of the people who moved in tended to be younger families, with kids who brought some new energy.”

He estimated that roughly three in four families stayed, far more than community leaders had expected based on fires elsewhere. The new homes were built with more fire-resistant materials, sometimes due to rewritten covenants.

In 2014, two years after the fire, The Gazette newspaper reported that the new homes built so far were nearly 14% larger, on average, than the ones they replaced. In some cases, streets of tract homes built off the same templates were replaced by hodgepodges of custom homes.

“I was back in my new house in 15 months,” said Moore, a widow who had managed to grab her husband’s ashes when she fled the fire. “I knew I was going to rebuild the same house. I did not want to move. I love my neighborhood. Several of us were military families who had retired, and we took care of each other.”

Others decided it was time for a change, including Lucas and her husband, Jim, who spent 22 years in their house until it was incinerated in an afternoon. Both nearing retirement age, they built a ranch-style house several miles away, one with a view of Pikes Peak.

Regardless of where it was, they said building a house from scratch, using the insurance payout, offered a chance to design it to fit their needs.

Thinking about the Marshall fire’s victims, Lucas, now 68 and still a real-estate agent, said: “Everybody just needs to get through this tough time, nose to the grindstone. I mean, I cried and cried and cried, every day, and I don’t cry easily. I was broken open. And then one day, it just was over — and the crying stopped.”

She said the couple has built new memories in their new home in the years since.

“I wish I could say to those people, you’re going to be fine — I know it seems like now you don’t have anything, but you will get through this,” Lucas said. “You will not just survive. You will thrive again.”

Tips for starting a disaster insurance claim

Tom Henderson, head of the Burg Simpson law firm’s bad-faith insurance division, detailed five key steps wildfire victims should take to initiate and solidify a claim for a destroyed home:

  • Immediately contact your insurer to open a claim.
  • As soon as possible, take pictures and videos of your property.
  • Ask your insurance for a complete copy of your policy, not just your most recent declarations page.
  • Ask your insurance company for an advance, which helps you get temporary housing, buy clothes or a laptop to resume work. In fact, state law requires one in the case of a total loss of a primary home.
  • Ask the insurance company what documents or information they need and how long to expect before action is taken on the claim.

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