Mountain home and property owners are on high alert as fires continue to burn in many parts of the Colorado high country. Tragically, many people have lost their properties to the flames and are now faced with nearly impossible questions regarding what to do next. I know, because my family lost our home in the Four Mile Canyon fire in 2010, a blaze that also destroyed hundreds of homes across more than 6,000 acres of mountain terrain. As people confronted the reality of the devastation and destruction, everyone asked: “What now?”
My family’s experience with the Four Mile fire shaped my personal opinion of how best to answer that question. I charted a course through the maze of how to obtain financial assistance, navigate insurance coverage for my neighbors and my family, and ultimately rebuild. If you’re beginning down that path, with the goal of rebuilding, there are some important steps that need to be taken as soon as possible:
- Even if you’re not certain if your home has burned, call your agent soon to make sure you have all of your policy information and understand your coverages. This will get you into the queue and get your adjuster involved in your claim.
- If you have coverages for “code upgrades”, and you decide to rebuild, these upgrades will bring the new structure into compliance with current codes. The coverage should be comprehensive for replacement (however, in some Counties, some upgrades can cost tens of thousands of dollars). Call the county building department for more information.
- Understand what you are actually allowed to rebuild if a fire sweeps the area. Sometimes municipalities are not only overwhelmed but have regulations about unpermitted structures, sheds, garages outbuildings, and decks. This can drastically affect the design of your new structure.
- Know your local regulations and rules regarding the size of new structures. Sometimes you cannot rebuild exactly what you have due to the land use and planning codes/rules/regs.
- Understand if you have coverage for debris removal. the existing house, contents, and materials need to be removed and trucked away. At times this is factored into the new build, and the coverages need to be explicit for the removal of the burned debris and cleanup. These debris cleanups can sometimes be labeled as hazardous waste or contain contaminants such as asbestos. If your municipality requires you to certify the debris removal process, proceed with caution and verify that the debris goes to the correct (state-mandated) landfill. This added cost can be part of the code upgrade coverage. Check with your agent.
- Foundations that experience very hot house fires become unstable and should be inspected by an engineer. It should not be assumed that they can be re-used and should be factored into the debris removal cost. If you had a big basement or complete concrete foundation, this needs large machines and heavy-rated trucks for removal which can be very expensive.
- If the fire has wiped out huge volumes of structures, there are sometimes EPA restrictions placed on the debris to be removed. Following the Four Mile fire, regulations were changed regarding debris removal after the first month and required all debris (including concrete) to be taken to landfills and wrapped and tagged for proper disposal due to the possibility of asbestos. This change alone tripled the costs.
- There are numerous resources available to you to assist with debris removal and provide you with the proper cost analysis and permits. For example, general contractors can fill this role and help coordinate the debris removal and planning process for rebuilding. They can also help to navigate the insurance requirements and provide an honest assessment of the situation you face.
- HOAs are sometimes covered under separate insurance policies. Make sure that you understand the coverages of the common areas and common amenities of your HOA. If the HOA can coordinate the cleanup efforts for the entire neighborhood, it may serve the group well to have a single point of contact.
- HOA common areas and shared systems, if covered by separate insurance, may not move at the same pace as the residents rebuilding. Make sure to coordinate efforts with your HOA or neighborhood associations. Get everyone pulling for the same goal.
- Make sure that your streets, curbs, driveways, and infrastructure do not suffer more damage. Control the access of heavy machinery and trucks to where it is most beneficial. Insurance rarely covers damage to existing hardscapes and walkways that were NOT damaged in the fire. Once those contractors are gone, it can be quite expensive to rebuild the neighborhood amenities.
- Utilities and infrastructure can be damaged but not visible for the actual inspection. Septic systems, cleanouts, sprinkler systems, internet, and phone cabling, gas and electrical service meters, wellheads, and service wiring, all need to be inspected for potential damage and certified for re-use.
- Make sure that you research where you can take concrete and steel for recycling. Sometimes you can offset some of the costs of disposal if these items have a path to a recycler.
Be aware that the logistics of building in the mountains can be tricky and expensive. Lots of out of town contractors and claim chasers come out of the woodwork and start to sell services after a
devastating fire. Do your research on the qualifications, licensing, and business history of who you engage to help. Support your local community and keep everyone working toward the goal
of rebuilding the neighborhoods and communities they live in. The locals know best.
Pat Minniear is president of Milo Construction, a general contractor who has experienced the devastation of mountain fires and provided assistance to people wanting to rebuild. He can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or 303 444 7775, x105.