By Steven Titus/photograph by Thia Martin
The 6,250-acre Four Mile Canyon fire was deemed "contained" on Sept. 13, 2010, a week after it started a few miles west of downtown Boulder. But for those whose homes it touched, the impact of this relatively small forest fire will be felt for decades.
Some 169 structures were destroyed and hundreds more damaged. Since then Boulder County has issued only 30 building permits, and some residents of the area predict only half the homes will be rebuilt. Depending on whom you speak to, blame for the slow pace of rebuilding is spread between county officials, the state of Colorado, the economy and insurance companies.
Conversations with residents about this subject can quickly spiral into anger and frustration. Some still can't talk about it. Others talk as a kind of therapy. To understand how bad the situation was - and is - and how ravaged people living in the canyons feel, it helps to go back to the day residents were allowed to go home.
Relief and despair
With the fire contained, Thia Martin traveled to the mouth of Sunshine Canyon as the 55-year-old artist did every day since the fire started, waiting for firefighters to lift road blocks so she could confirm whether reports on her house were true - that her 8,000-square-foot home and studio were gone. Permission to go home now registered as an alien concept to the reclusive artist. She had evacuated with a handful of possessions that didn't seem as important to her anymore.
"I grabbed cameras, my journal and some other meaningful things like photos, but nothing of my kids.' I don't know why," Martin said.
The cameras are important to her work as a film documentarian. She's working on a documentary of the fire and the recovery process and hopes to release it at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. Traveling up Sunshine Canyon, the heavy smell of burned timber was everywhere. The damage was horrific and random with one house reduced to ash while another was untouched. Amazingly, Martin's house was not destroyed.
"I was feeling like one of the lucky ones," she said. "My first experience was walking in the house and seeing it was so black, covered in soot. Three fourths of the house was greatly impacted and would have to come down."
There was a combination of shock and relief, but mostly confusion. What's next? How does this get repaired? Who will do the work? What will it cost? As she contemplated the next move, opportunists wearing tool belts and carrying fliers proclaiming their prowess with a hammer and saw positioned themselves at the mouth of the canyon to intercept homeowners traveling back to their damaged or destroyed homes.
"It was unbelievable, it was a frenzy," said Jim Appel, construction director and a principal at Coburn Development in Boulder. "Contractors would bombard them with fliers and weird gifts to set themselves apart from others looking for work. If it wasn't such a desperate time economically, things might have been different."
The frenzy carried on for several weeks. Some out-of-towners latched onto Colorado builders and used their license numbers to appear local and circumvent the process of securing local credentials. Occasionally out-of-work laborers would coax a few dollars out of desperate and confused victims before being run off by legitimate contractors.
"People would tell me, ‘I have a whole bag of people I'd never use,'" Appel said. "At the time there was no work going on. People were thinking, ‘How do I help, and how do I get a job?' What we discovered is people needed help settling claims."
Rummaging through ashes
The arcane business of settling claims and dealing with county building regulations is difficult for professionals who do it every day. For the newly homeless, navigating the labyrinth of their policies and building codes became a full-time struggle compounded by the sorrow and stress of losing everything and trying to carry on with life.
"Their problem is, the effort has been slowed by insurance companies not being willing to settle without people being willing to jump through a whole bunch of hoops," said Steve Stratton, a 58-year-old firefighter and former fire chief in Sunshine Canyon. "The other is the county has not been terribly helpful in getting building permits. If you want to build back what you have, that's pretty quick. But if you want to make changes it can take a lot longer."
The county quickly adjusted its regulations to give homeowners the chance to rebuild what they had, but if the structure is changed or moved, it triggers new regulations that discourage or disallow larger buildings like many of the mountain homes.
"You can get so stressed out to the point where it seems so much bigger than you. The process, it has a life of its own," Martin said.
Martin had good insurance, but this didn't make it any easier.
"You get to adjusters, and they're just trying to stick it to you," she said. "He was in my house going over every square inch. He went into my closet and was going through my clothes. He asked if I was a ballroom dancer ... he said I looked like one because of my clothes. They're like hyenas."
For Martin, the rummaging went on for seven days and in the end, the amount proposed by Farmer's Insurance was not nearly enough to cover the damage. Then, in the months of wrangling with the insurance company, the pipes in her house froze leading to more extensive damage and yet another claim.
Many homeowners found they were woefully underinsured, having made improvements and additions to their homes without getting permits or adjusting their coverage. Receipts and photos were gone with the house, and without plans or concrete proof, insurance companies relied on county records, which often showed a smaller structure and a lower value than what was really on the lot.
"The house that's totally gone, that's heart-wrenching," said Kevin Hanson, team manager with State Farm. Hanson lives in Colorado and has been responding to disasters for nearly 30 years, including all of the major forest fires in Colorado.
"We want to pay what's owed. We want to pay what it takes to rebuild," he said. "However, there are a lot of limits in the policies. When we meet with policyholders, we have to start from scratch. We have to talk to them about what was in there. If they tell us they have granite countertops, we need to know if they're tile or one piece. If they have wood floors, what kind are they? Doing averages is fine, but how do you know it's accurate? If we went through there and treated them all the same, that would be bad faith, and that's opening up the company for not treating the customers fairly."
Hanson said State Farm provides a rough estimate, then relies on homeowners and contractors to counter its initial offers. But shell-shocked residents made suspicious by scrounging adjusters and insurance companies pressing them with low-ball offers are left reeling.
Help for the weary
The mountain community outside of Boulder is a tight bunch, and when Appel stepped in to help Martin with her claim, word traveled. Coburn Development's long history in Boulder and Appel's friendly, open demeanor struck a chord with residents, and over the next few months he went through the arduous process of estimating reconstruction of 16 homes.
"It took a bit of forensics," Appel said. "You'd look at a picture of burned rubble and hand drawings of what was there and try to determine what it would take to rebuild. The process of getting a claim completed is massive; it could take six to eight months, maybe a year."
He added that insurance companies weren't trying to be dishonest, but they didn't understand what it takes to build in the mountains or the additional expense of building to Boulder County's ‘Build Smart' standards of energy efficiency that often add 25 percent to construction costs. Then the state poked its bureaucratic nose into the mix and declared that all debris should be considered contaminated with asbestos until proven otherwise, adding yet more cost to an already crushing bill.
Of course, the weak economy and depressed home market cannot be ignored and often resulted in a structure that cost more to build than it's worth. But many insurance companies will only pay a depreciated amount if the house isn't rebuilt, sometimes not leaving enough to pay off a mortgage and often not enough to buy another home.
The fury has died down, but the frustration has not. Accurate costs of the losses don't exist. Some guesses place the property loss near $350 million. This is without factoring in the reduced value of homes left standing. There is, of course, no way to estimate the value of a lost community and the mental impact on the hundreds of families, some of whom have lived through more than one fire and others who left the mountains without looking back.
"If someone told me this is what it would look like nine or 10 months later, I wouldn't have believed it," said Dan Rotner, senior architect with Coburn Development. "I think our community was ill-equipped to deal with this stuff."
On a rainy spring afternoon, eight months after the fire, the empty roads through Sunshine Canyon pass through vast hillsides of burned snags with strips of healthy pines marking the areas inexplicably spared. Occasional thunder and lightning amid destroyed homes give the scene an eerie apocalyptic feel.
Signs poked into the roadside announce the presence of builders, architects, foundation companies and every other construction trade, but not one is in sight. With the windows open slightly, the smell of an old campfire fills the car. In the canyon below the road, a thick cloud billows up and the smell of smoke gets stronger. Minutes later a Sunshine Canyon fire truck races past.