First steps on the long road to recovery from High Park Fire

Residents in the High Park Fire burn area are now in the recovery phase. As cleanup equipment removes charred debris, homeowners are dealing with insurance companies to pay for needed repairs. Those who have lost homes are wrestling with the intensely complicated and personal decision of whether to rebuild, and how.

“The most important thing is to talk directly to your insurance agent,” said Rich Davis with the Colorado Farm Bureau, who has been dealing with policyholders in the area since before the fire was fully contained on July 1. “What you hear from one of your neighbors may not be true for you. It all depends on the coverage in your policy.”

For example, whether insurance will pay the actual cost of replacing a home or only a certain portion of the costs depends on how the policy is written – that’s what the policyholder has been paying for with those monthly premiums. Davis said many homeowners rarely think about what their insurance actually covers after they sign the initial documents – until they need to make a claim.

“We try to build a relationship with our clients so we know when there are major changes to the property or in their living situation,” he said. “People will put in a deck or a hot tub or have a family member come live with them and not think about updating their policy.”

That means keeping your home inventory current with photos stored with your policy documents as well as reviewing your homeowner’s coverage with your agent once a year. In these economic times, however, increasing coverage – which usually means increasing premiums – can be difficult, especially on vacation homes or cabins, Davis said.

Whatever the amount of the insurance settlement, be sure to spend it wisely by hiring only reputable contractors. Davis said your insurance agent or adjuster should be able to provide a list of companies they have worked with before; anyone giving you an estimate should also have a list of references that you should check.

“If someone approaches you and offers to do the work for whatever amount you get from your insurance company, don’t sign over the check,” he said. “You’ll probably never see them again.”

Many stressful issues
Dealing with insurance is only one of many stressful issues now facing fire survivors, according to Lori Peek, associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University.

“There’s typically no one recovery experience, but we know there is a long road ahead,” she said. “Most people and most communities do bounce back from terrible loss, but it takes time, and there will be setbacks.”

Peek has done extensive research on how communities and individuals coped in the aftermath of the hurricanes that devastated New Orleans in 2005, and is currently writing a book based on her research. She said individuals who have been displaced by repeated evacuations and experienced “disasters after the disaster,” like the mudslides that followed the High Park Fire, can feel particularly vulnerable.

“We used to think surviving multiple disasters made people more resilient, but it really means they are already running on empty when they get hit a second time,” she said. Then they are confronted with picking up the pieces to move on, like dealing with insurance.

As for the notion that compared to loss of life, a house is “just stuff” that can be replaced, Peek said the loss of the memories associated with that “stuff” should not be discounted.

“What is a home if not an accumulation of a lifetime?” she said. “Who is to say what objects are priceless to you?”

And it really does take a village to rebuild a village.

“Those who cope most successfully are those who have strong community support after the initial crisis is over,” Peek said. “While everyone feels a shared purpose during an emergency, it takes leadership to continue that through the recovery process.”

On the plus side, Peek said, the High Park Fire has been considered a disaster for the entire Fort Collins community, not just the residents of the canyons directly affected. The many, many fundraisers, the public gratitude to the firefighters, and the outreach by Larimer County officials even while the flames were still raging are all positives for the future.

Peek has arranged for her graduate students to work with the county emergency management team this coming semester in the High Park burn area, collecting data to help with the recovery efforts.

“It will be a real project that will be useful to the disaster managers as well,” she

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