High Park Fire insurance hassles mount: ‘Right now, this is not the fun stuff’

The hardest part of any disaster is the aftermath. A month after the High Park Fire was finally controlled, survivors are still sorting through the ashes of their homes – and lives. For the most part, they are not doing it alone, but they are confronting difficult decisions daily.

Agents, adjusters and other aggravations
It’s one thing to lose everything, quite another to write down “everything” – and put a price tag on each item.

When the High Park Fire started on June 9, artist David Miller had not yet unpacked the pickup truck friends had driven for him during the Hewlett Fire evacuation in May. It was filled with all the artwork from the trailer he used as his studio. But the emergency notification call to leave Boyd Gulch this time came at night, when he was alone and the power was out.

“I could only drive one vehicle, so I threw everything else in the car, and then I couldn’t go back for the truck,” Miller said. “Everything I’d been working on for the past 14 years is gone – and the truck, too.”

Moore also lost about 30 years’ worth of sketchbooks – in essence, his life’s work – but how do you determine their worth in dollars and cents? And do it within a month, while you have no permanent home and are coming to terms with a major life trauma.

By the end of August, more than 850 insurance claims had been filed as a result of the High Park Fire, for everything from hotel stays during an evacuation to total loss of a house. The amount so far totals $97.1 million, according to the website of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

Almost everyone who lost a home tells some variation of this story: Our insurance agent was great to work with; the company and/or the adjuster, not so much. They feel pressured to make decisions before they’ve considered all their options, yet can’t get the information they need to consider. And there’s a lot to think about.

Carol Walker, executive director of the RMIIA, explained that every policy provides three kinds of loss coverage: the cost of repairing or replacing the structure; the cost of replacing the contents; and additional expenses for loss of use, such as temporary housing. How much each pays depends on the individual policy, and each type of coverage comes with its own filing deadlines and payment schedule.

“Most policies are written to replace what you had — the cash value minus depreciation,” Walker said. “But construction costs may have gone up or you may have made improvements since the policy was written. That’s why it’s important to review your policy with your agent on a regular basis.”

An industry survey in January showed that nearly three-quarters of Colorado homeowners had updated their coverage in the past two years. However, anyone who tried to make changes in July probably couldn’t. Insurers impose a moratorium until the end of a disaster; in this case, until the fire was declared controlled on July 23, three weeks after it was 100 percent contained, Walker explained.

To file a claim for contents, you must document what you have lost. Some things, like appliances and furniture, can be relatively simple; others, like Miller’s artwork, are simply priceless. Then there’s everything else. And unless you’re as organized as your insurance agent tells you to be, you’re trying to remember your stuff while mourning its loss.

Valued policies proposed
One way around the pain of creating a personal property inventory after the fact is valued policy coverage. Such policies, which cover homeowners for a flat amount of property loss, are currently available in 18 states, but not Colorado. Davis Ranch resident Dale Snyder is advocating for the state to allow such coverage.

Insurers don’t like valued polices, Walker said.

“There are huge potential fraud issues,” she explained. “It sounds good on paper, but if the mandated value exceeds the actual value of the property, someone could make a profit, even from an arson.”

Local homeowners should expect to see higher premiums at renewal time, but not directly as a result of the High Park Fire, according to Walker. As devastating as the loss of 259 homes is, wind and hailstorms have cost insurers much more over the past few years, pushing up premiums between 10 percent and 15 percent throughout the state.

A public hearing with Colorado’s insurance commissioner, state legislators, representatives of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office and county commissioners took place in Fort Collins on Aug. 29, after the North Forty News went to press.

Resources for rebuilding
“This isn’t the first fire in the canyon, and it won’t be the last,” according to Phil Benstein, president of NoCo Rebuilding Network. “But we don’t have any way to connect people to the resources already available for recovery in Larimer County. We want to put all the pieces of the puzzle together so the community can rebuild better.”

Benstein, a Rist Canyon volunteer firefighter and resident of Davis Ranch, realized the disconnect after the Crystal Fire. He helped found the nonprofit network last year, based on the model of the suppliers’ network at New Belgium Brewing where he works.

“We want to make sure people build the home they want and don’t feel rushed into something else by their insurance company,” Benstein said. “We want them to have the resources to make their own decisions.”

In addition to providing education about sustainable building practices, NoCo Rebuilding Network makes direct financial grants to homeowners. This is especially important since FEMA has rejected Gov. Hickenlooper’s request for individual disaster assistance.

NoCo Rebuilding made three grants after the Crystal Fire, and so far has raised $80,000 for High Park residents. Benstein said his goal is to build the fund up to $500,000 to be able to meet future disasters quickly. The Sustainable Living Association in Fort Collins acts as the fiduciary for the all-volunteer network.

While NoCo Rebuilding promotes sustainable practices, Benstein pointed out that his organization doesn’t tell people how or what to build.

“We just want to let people know they have choices,” he said. “If they choose to rebuild in a way that keeps their home safer with Fire Wise, or reduces the number of propane trucks coming up the canyon, that helps the whole community. But it’s their choice.”

Back in the day, some area homeowners chose not to pull all the necessary permits; Larimer County did not require them before 1972. As a result, many of the structures lost were considered “non-conforming.” For example, in the 1980s, Miller built his 450-square-foot home on an existing foundation, out of reclaimed materials. He also bought the cheapest homeowner’s insurance he could.

The county building department is offering a discount of up to $1,000 on building permit fees for homes that were uninsured, underinsured or non-conforming. Building and Code Compliance Supervisor Candace Phippen said she has budgeted for about 60 percent of homes to be rebuilt; by Aug. 17 the department had approved two applications and fielded several phone calls.

Homeowners may also be eligible for low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration for up to $200,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate and up to $40,000 for personal property. Applications are available online at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela, or at the SBA Disaster Loan Outreach Center in the old Mervyn’s store at the Foothills Mall, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. The deadline to apply is Oct. 9.

Even homes built professionally 40 years ago wouldn’t meet current county codes. Christopher Sullivan, whose family lost their fully insured vacation home in Davis Ranch, said the house had no insulation but plenty of single-pane windows – and frozen pipes to go with them.

To learn about more efficient options, Sullivan attended a meeting of the Restore Bellvue Working Group. The group meets every Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Bellvue Grange to bring local building professionals together with people who have lost their homes. Contractors Josh Mooradian and Larry Lechner came up with the idea while the fire was still raging and Lechner was staying with Mooradian during the evacuation of Bellvue.

“We didn’t know about NoCo Rebuilding then,” Moordian said. “We just wanted a way to use our skills to help our neighbors.”

They drew up a five-phase reconstruction plan, then began recruiting carpenters, plumbers, electricians – anyone in the local building trades willing to offer their time and expertise to rebuilding the community.

“The first meeting we got a lot of people who thought it was about business networking,” Mooradian, a Bellvue native, said. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re local people helping local people. Everyone is invited to share what they know, without promoting themselves or selling anything. We want to be a great resource for the community.”

Lechner added that the group is not for just Bellvue but anyone affected by the fires.

Now Restore Bellvue is getting the word out to those rebuilding, through an online forum hosted on the NoCo Rebuilding website: nocorebuilding.org.

On Aug. 22, about 35 people heard presentations on passive solar and straw-bale building techniques; the crowd was about evenly divided between builders and homeowners. Foundation inspections, reusing burned cinder blocks, and which local suppliers are offering deals were also discussed.

The theme of the evening: Take your time and rebuild right. If you can’t start now, you can always ask for an extension from your insurance company.

Miller is taking that advice. After fending off his insurer’s first low-rent housing option, he has settled into a small condo in Fort Collins and is working with an architect. Sullivan, who lives in town, is clearing debris while collecting inventory lists from his mother and two siblings and arguing with his insurance adjuster.

“I’m looking forward to starting on the new design,” Sullivan said. “That’s the fun stuff. I didn’t lose my only home like my neighbors, so I’m grateful, but right now, this is not the fun stuff.”

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