Friday marked a year since the controlled burn east of Conifer was first ignited by representatives of the State of Colorado. Tuesday, when this is published, will mark the one-year anniversary of the fourth day when winds approaching 70 mph fanned unmonitored flames out of control, destroying 23 homes and killing 3 people.
On Friday I had a front-row seat in Judge Hall’s courtroom in Golden where attorneys outnumbered the survivors of the Lower North Fork fire able to attend. The State and Denver Water had 10 attorneys collectively, while another 19 represented parties affected by the fire, including the insurance companies, utility companies and those who lost their homes.
One might think that, as long as these people were insured, they ought to be getting on with their lives. But let me give you an example to make you think of your own situation should you ever lose a home to a fire.
Put yourself in this scenario
Let’s say you had a home in the area affected – on 10 acres worth $500,000 – and you’d been “pretty good” about updating values with your insurance agent since you’d moved in 15 years ago. For starters, the insurance would have covered replacement of the house and contents — but insurance companies generally don’t insure the ground a home sits on.
Depending on the type of insurance coverage you had as a homeowner, you might be required to rebuild on the same piece of property. In other cases, you would be given a settlement permitting you to build elsewhere or invest in an already-built home.
the contents of your house. (My insurance-agent friends will give me a hard time about oversimplifying, but this isn’t meant to be a technical document.)
Meanwhile, you are having to pay $1,800 for temporary accommodations in addition to making the mortgage payments and home equity loan installments.
You consider a move elsewhere to get a fresh start, but your $140,000 lot is now worth only $35,000 because of the landscape, so selling is not an option. Plus, it’s all tied into that $450,000 mortgage….
If you rebuild on your existing lot, you must clear the debris, determine whether a foundation is safe enough to re-use, have an architect redesign a house to fit the foundation, and put the project out for bid. These are all draining, time-consuming, major projects on their own even if you WANTED to be going through the process of building a home.
For miles around the landscape is like a moonscape. The trees are dead — charred black sticks and still standing. The cost to remove them is prohibitive.
You must go out and replace a small portion of everything you’ve lost in the fire. Depending on your type of policy and what’s being replaced, you may be covered for replacement value — or actual cost — or depreciated cost. You find that some things were underinsured or are irreplaceable or you forgot to include them on your claim.
The inconvenience is enormous, overwhelming
Most of us would complain about the inconvenience of replacing a license and credit cards if a wallet were stolen, but think about what it might be like to lose everything you own and what it would take just to put in a claim.
You are one of 30 or more families trying to find an affordable place to live in the same general area where there aren’t 30 homes available to rent. In addition, you’re rebuilding a wardrobe from donated items, acquiring replacement vehicles and furniture, mourning your loss — all these things are emotional and time consuming tasks that need to be fit in around your normal work week responsibilities; your medical, dental and physical therapy appointments; and the typical demands of family. Plans for vacations, golf or even playing bridge are now out of the question. You’re grateful for someone who extends an invitation for a home-cooked meal.
If you weren’t one who lost a loved one in the fire, you at least knew your neighbors who did. You’re mourning the losses of life, property and having a place to call home. Your neighbors have scattered. Many whose houses didn’t burn have had to evacuate for months because of smoke damage.
The flurry of concern and support that initially filled the days immediately following the disaster subsided within a few months. You’re embarrassed to ask for funds from the fund established with donations at the Mountain Resource Center because you don’t want to take away money from others who might need it more.
Other disasters occur around the state and the nation, and other people go on with their lives. But you’re still trying to deal with your losses.
Your emotions are stretched to the limit. Your father dies. Your spouse is diagnosed with early-onset of Alzheimer’s. Every decision you and your spouse must make tests the strength of your marriage, which might have been on rocky ground before the fire occurred. You’re still plagued with the pain of that needed hip replacement that had to be postponed because of everything else.
You’re outraged by people trying to gouge you by overcharging to do the dirty work that needs to get done – the people who think your insurance company will cover whatever….
Your children are needing psychological help because of all the adjustments they face in addition to coping with growing up, changing schools, living in a new neighborhood, having none of their familiar “things” and being surrounded by a family consumed with the post-fire stress.
Perhaps you’re the one who had to drop out of those college classes when the fire occurred because it was more than you could handle with two little kids and all, but now your Pell grant must be repaid because you failed to complete the courses. You are diagnosed with breast cancer. Your relatives are busy fighting with one another, consumed with their own lives and no longer offer any sympathy for your situation — after all, what can THEY do? Life does go on. There are days you just want to throw in the towel.
These are examples of stories I’ve heard from those who were affected.
Why should the State be held liable?
The Lower North Fork Fire was not a natural disaster that occurred like Super Storm Sandy or Hurricane Katrina. It was caused by negligence of the State of Colorado, through which a prescribed burn got out of control. Permitting a burn during the driest March on record with intense winds forecast was one issue. Allowing the fire to be unmonitored for multiple days was another. And then there are the 911 operators who kept assuring callers that it was a “controlled burn” and not to worry; at least one person who died had been chastised for calling 911 more than once. When the Reverse 911 system was implemented, it was too late — and calls went to the wrong area.
Homeowners of many of the homes that were destroyed had complied with fire mitigation regulations and even gone beyond recommendations, using concrete and metal building materials rather than flammable ones and clearingall trees close to their homes. The intense heat consumed everything in its path, causing fire-resistant homes to simply implode.
It’s like a slap in the face that the Governor publicly accepted responsibility in front of the TV cameras but essentially has done nothing to help. While victims of other fires in the state last summer received both State and Federal assistance, those affected by the LNFF received neither. Why? The State’s acceptance of responsibility kept FEMA from helping before the State exhausted its resources; plus, FEMA stated that the State had waited too long to apply for assistance. Whose fault is that?
To that, add that the governor allocated $1.3 million last fall for the State Forest Service to clear the charred trees, but nothing has been done to date. Estimates to clear all the trees came in at about $16 million.
It’s an insult that the Commission for the LNFF held sessions but never truly investigated the fire because “they were not given a budget to conduct an investigation.” It’s a double insult because the Attorney General’s office asked homeowners to submit paperwork reflecting their intent to file claims but then has done nothing to follow up on the process because they say “they don’t have staff” to handle the load.
Attorneys for the claimants submitted a plan to the Attorney General’s office some time ago, suggesting use of a Judicial Arbitration Group (JAG) comprised of four retired judges willing to volunteer their time. The AG’s office initially refused to consider the concept but seemed to be acquiescing by last Friday’s hearing. Judge Hall gave the attorneys until April 23rd to come up with a plan for using JAG volunteers to evaluate losses (vs. claims) precluding double recovery. His words with regard to not wasting anymore time gave the survivors an ounce of encouragement in dealing with the heavy weight they’ve been forced to carry.
It’s my opinion that these people deserve some compensation for what they’ve been put through, and no one can convince me otherwise.
Photos above: (1) Jenny Lucas, whose grandparents perished in the fire after being told by 911 operators not to worry, that it was a controlled burn. (2) Sharon Scanlan with Jack, Ruth and Jim Richard, all of whom lost homes in the fire. (3) Jeanie and Andy Hoover, who lost a home filled with artifacts of President Hoover. Andy was in the house when it caught fire and watched from his truck in the driveway as his “fireproof” home built of concrete and metal imploded. (4) a typical view of charred trees still standing. (5) Tom and Sharon Scanlan, who lost their home and have played key roles in keeping the survivors together in proceedings with the State of Colorado.