USA–– Two years after the Fourmile Canyon wildfire raged through the hills west of Boulder, fewer than half the people who lost homes have filed for permits to rebuild.
Fourmile serves as a stark indicator of the hurdles facing victims of this summer’s High Park and Waldo Canyon fires.
Many will be unwilling or unable to build again from the ashes left behind.
Insurance payment shortfalls and tight construction financing can be significant impediments to the desires of homeowners to rebuild. Other victims simply can’t deal with the emotions and time commitments needed to start over again.
Analysts say that because insurance claims can take months or even years to be settled, there is no way yet to estimate how many families will rebuild from this year’s wildfires.
Through last week, new building permits had been issued for 20 of the 259 homes destroyed in High Park. Victims of the Waldo Canyon fire have pulled 17 rebuilding permits from the 347 homes destroyed.
The best statistical measure comes from the Fourmile Canyon fire of September 2010. Out of the 169 homes destroyed, homeowners so far have filed for 64 building permits a rebuilding rate of 38 percent.
“It’s a very daunting process for any homeowner,” said Erin Kristofco, a Merlin Law Group attorney who represents property owners in insurance claims.
The two biggest problems Kristofco sees are homeowners being underinsured in the first place, then struggling with the claims process in which insurers typically pay upfront only a portion of replacement costs, with the remainder coming after rebuilding is complete.
Many wildfire victims have complained that with tight lending availability, they have difficulty bridging the gap between initial insurance payments and the full costs of reconstruction.
“The homeowner is very deceived in thinking that they’re fully covered,” Kristofco said. “That’s why you have insurance you shouldn’t have to go out and get a loan to rebuild.”
She is among advocates of a change in Colorado insurance law to offer “valued policies” that would require insurers to pay out a predetermined amount on a destroyed home. Those policies address another complaint by paying claims upfront.
Insurance industry officials say that homeowner policies clearly lay out coverage levels and the claims process. They say agents and adjusters work hard to help wildfire victims get their lives back to normal.
But Englewood insurance attorney Richard Kaudy describes the claims process as “a circular firing squad with the homeowner in the middle,” surrounded by sometimes uncooperative insurance adjusters and reticent lenders.
“There are plenty of people that will attest that the actual insurance settlement process is much more traumatic than the loss from the fire itself,” said Garry Sanfacon, Boulder County’s Fourmile fire recovery manager.
Fourmile victim John Rising said his insurance claims process was “tedious.”
He and his wife Sharon ended up with complete reimbursement on the structural part of their policy, but came up short on full replacement of home contents because of two factors: the necessity of paying for goods upfront before getting reimbursement, and the inability to complete the replacement within the two-year period stipulated by their insurance.
Ultimately, the Risings overcame problems with a contractor and recently completed their $600,000 rebuild.
Regardless of claims issues, underinsurance is a pervasive issue, Sanfacon said. Boulder’ s survey of Fourmile homeowners showed that 60 percent were underinsured by an average of $200,000 each.
Dale Snyder said he now regrets being underinsured by $70,000 on the home that he and his wife lost in June’s High Park fire west of Fort Collins.
His $231,000 policy won’t come close to covering the estimated replacement cost of $302,000. He said he and his wife Marilyn are yet undecided if they will attempt to rebuild.
Financing and insurance issues are only a portion of the challenges that homeowners face. Some become overwhelmed with the emotions of returning to their burned properties, and the logistical headaches of dealing with county regulations, architects, engineers and builders.
“Why don’t people rebuild? There are a variety of very personal factors,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.
“In high-risk wildfire areas, you have been through the trauma of evacuation. Then you are going back to a neighborhood that is barren,” she said. “Also, there are the hassles of trying to rebuild. We hope these communities come back. People do have that option of taking the cash-value amount and relocating.”
Walker denied some policyholders’ claims that insurers steer customers toward taking the cash-value settlement, which typically is smaller.
Brian Olson, El Paso County’s fire recovery liaison, said complaints he has heard from victims focus on “inconsistencies with adjusters. From house to house, they’re not being consistent with establishing values.”
Waldo Canyon homeowners are more likely to rebuild than High Park or Fourmile victims because the Colorado Springs-area houses tend to be primary residences, not vacation homes, and suburban construction is easier than in rural areas.
Olson said the Mountain Shadows neighborhood the focal point of the Waldo Canyon fire is showing signs of resilience as homeowners grapple with the rebuilding question.
“Many people are still mourning the loss of their homes,” Olson said. “But there are a lot of grass roots up there. This kind of stuff can tear a community up, but it can also help bring people together.”