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The Marshall Fire: Lessons in Wildfire Recovery From Boulder
January 12, 2022

The Marshall Fire: Lessons in Wildfire Recovery From Boulder

by The CE Shop Team

Colorado’s Most Destructive Wildfire Devours More Than 1,000 Homes

A quick-moving Colorado wildfire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in late December, forcing many who lost their homes to begin navigating the arduous process of recovery in a county facing a severe housing shortage.

The blaze, which was fueled by high winds and extreme drought conditions, destroyed more homes than any in the state’s history. It more than doubled the previous record set by the Black Forest fire, which devoured 489 homes in a rural area outside of Colorado Springs in 2013.

While many Coloradans are grappling with the fact that fire season has become a year-round reality, Boulder County residents who lost their homes are facing an uncertain future in an area that many likely thought was safe from such destruction. 

And all Coloradans might be wondering: What’s next?

‘A Suburban and Urban Fire’

The wildfire, known as the Marshall fire, stood out not only for the destruction it left in its wake but also because of where — and when — it burned.

This “wasn't a wildfire in the forest, it was a suburban and urban fire — the Costco we all shop at, the Target we buy our kids' clothes at, all surrounded and damaged," said Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who lives in Boulder, during a press conference.

The fire sparked during an unusually warm and dry winter for many of Colorado’s urban areas. Denver, for example, saw its first snowfall of the season — only 0.3 inches — on 12/10/2021, shattering an 87-year-old record. Previously, the city’s latest first snowfall on record was 11/21/1934.

Experts say that extreme wildfires like this one, which “came at a time of year when a blaze of such violence is unprecedented,” will only become more common as climate change worsens, The Washington Post reported

“This historic and devastating fire isn’t a one-off event, but fits into a pattern toward larger fires in both Colorado and other parts of the West in recent years, as well as an expansion of the fire season to practically year-round,” The Post reported.

For Coloradans and others living in western states, the threat is real — and it could influence where people choose to buy a home.

“This fire disaster also casts light on the danger of building and development into the zones prone to wildfire or what scientists call the wildland-urban interface, which is becoming more vulnerable with climate warming,” The Post reported.

In all, the Marshall fire destroyed 1,084 homes and damaged 149 more across the towns of Louisville and Superior as well as in unincorporated Boulder County, The Denver Post reported. Additionally, seven commercial buildings were destroyed and 30 more were damaged.

The Boulder County Assessor's Office estimated that the fire caused $513,212,589 in residential damage — but damage estimates could grow in the coming weeks and months.

What Happens After Someone Loses Their Home to a Wildfire?

Losing your home to a wildfire is a worst-case scenario that most wouldn’t know how to navigate. 

In general, here’s what happens:

The process of recovery involves a lot of short-term and long-term planning, from filing claims with insurance to finding a new place to live. It’s overwhelming and chaotic, but there are sure to be local nonprofits or government agencies that can help.

Before anything else, those who have had their homes damaged or destroyed by a fire should contact their insurance agent. It’s in their best interest to file an insurance claim as quickly as possible. They can ask the insurance agent about next steps, including debris clean-up and help with expenses in the meantime.

Insurance will likely ask for an itemized inventory of everything that was in the home, as well as thorough documentation of new items purchased and expenses incurred after the fire. 

What about the uninsured or underinsured?

“FEMA provides financial assistance to the uninsured, but also can supplement insurance payments for the underinsured,” The Colorado Sun reported. “The state Division of Insurance recommends going through your regular insurance process and once you get the estimate, if it’s not enough to cover the repair or rebuild, reach out to FEMA again and they will take a second look. You’ll need to provide proof that the insurer is not covering the full amount.”

For homeowners, the other important call to make is to their mortgage lender. While mortgage payments are still due even if a home is destroyed — that’s why “mortgage lenders require homeowners to have home insurance to protect the asset” — some lenders will work with owners whose home is lost, The Sun reported.

Starting the process of replacing personal documents and credit cards that were lost in the fire is important, too.

But the road to recovery could be more difficult in Boulder County, where there was a severe housing shortage even before the fire.

Boulder is one of the most expensive cities in Colorado, with a typical home value of $988,116 as of November 2021, according to Zillow’s Home Value Index. The nearby cities of Louisville and Superior, where the fire tore through neighborhoods, aren’t too far off, with typical home values of $831,607 and $827,429, respectively.

All three cities are well above the state’s Zillow Home Value Index of $528,211.

In the wake of the Marshall fire, the rental vacancy rate in Boulder County will likely “be pushed as close to zero as possible,” Todd Ulrich, a board member with the Boulder Area Rental Housing Association, told The Sun

“Everything anywhere close to Superior and Louisville will be rented very quickly, and that’s going to force people farther from the area,” Ulrich said. “There wasn’t enough housing here to begin with.”

In November 2021, only 96 single-family homes and condos were listed for sale in Boulder County, with a median sale price of $735,000, The Sun reported. That’s down 75% from the previous November.

Rising construction costs, supply-chain issues, and labor shortages could make it more difficult to rebuild, The Wall Street Journal pointed out.

For those in Boulder County who lost their homes, there’s a long road to recovery ahead. Do you live in a wildfire-prone state? Educate yourself — and your clients — about the risks today.

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