A Homeowner’s Guide to Fire Recovery
What to expect when rebuilding after a disaster
January 11, 2022
Losing your home to a natural disaster is filled with devastation, trauma, and grief. The Marshall fire in Boulder, CO, in late December 2021 destroyed upwards of 1,000 homes and businesses in the local community—leaving many people displaced, confused and hopeless.
The good news is, there are plenty of helpful resources and services available after natural disasters, most of which are provided by the local government but may be difficult to access or navigate. At Homebound, we have helped rebuild communities affected by wildfires in California and by hurricanes in the Bahamas. The following article takes lessons learned from the dozens of rebuild projects and experiences to help set expectations for the first 30 days — and eventually rebuild your home.
The thought of beginning to rebuild your home probably comes secondary to ensuring your community’s safety, finding temporary housing, and supporting your mental health. Some will never rebuild, which is understandable. Others will want to rebuild not only for themselves and their families, but also with the intention of rebuilding their community. Whatever path you choose, read on for sound, professional advice from our experienced team here at Homebound that is sure to help provide some clarity.
Critical Steps to Take in the First 30 Days
1. Contact your insurance carrier.
If you have lost your home and have residential property insurance, here are a few suggestions below to chat with your insurance carrier about. These talking points will help you better understand what coverages are available to you, and how to utilize them during a natural disaster such as a wildfire.
- Call your insurance company or agent first thing. Report your claim as soon as possible.
- Ask for a Certified Copy of your insurance policy. You can review it at length with your agent so you better understand the coverages available at the time the event occurred.
- Ask for a detailed explanation of the insurance claims process. This includes what to expect, what is expected of you, and timelines.
- Determine whether or not you have ALE (Additional Living Expense) coverage. If you do, keep receipts and records of all expenses that you have incurred as a result of being displaced due to the fire. Costs associated with being displaced may be reimbursable (food, travel, accommodations, clothing, medication refills, pet housing, etc.)
- Start making a detailed list of the items lost on your property. This would include characteristics of your Home/Main Dwelling, Personal Property (Furniture, Clothing, Electronics, etc..), Other Structures located on the Property (Additional Structures, Detached Garages, Sheds, Fencing, Storage Tanks, etc..). The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to recall items lost. Use photos, videos, or anything that can help recreate the property before the event occurred. As a homeowner, it is your responsibility to prove your loss to the carrier, not the other way around.
- Ask a lot of questions! The more questions you will ask, the better you will understand the process and what is expected of you. If something does not sound right, ask questions until you are satisfied with the answer. If you need additional guidance, here are other resources available to help guide you through the claims process such as:
The Department of Insurance Help Center
Public Insurance Adjusters
Attorneys (Property Loss and Insurance Litigation specialists)
2. Forward your mail & cancel utilities.
If your home has been destroyed, your local post office will hold your mail, typically for up to 30 days.
Once you have determined where you’ll be, you can request mail forwarding through the USPS website here. Many important documents may come through the mail, including insurance correspondence, so it’s best to set this up as soon as possible.
In addition to mail, you may also need to cancel utilities to avoid being charged for services like garbage. Contact your utility directly to cancel these services.
3. Research debris removal services.
The county or state will eventually organize debris removal on your lot, but you can also opt to use a private debris removal service provider if you’d like to move more quickly, or if you want a better chance of preserving your home’s original foundation.
Note: If you are able to preserve your foundation and reuse it in the future, this could save you hundreds to thousands in rebuild costs.
If you choose to use a private debris removal provider, make sure that the company is licensed and insured. A few indicators of a reputable and well-managed debris removal company are uniformed employees, well-marked vehicles, and a good number of positive and unbiased customer reviews online. For more information specific to the Marshall fire, visit this website.
4. Know what to do if your lot is possessed.
If your home sustains heavy damage, the county may take possession of the lot, and prohibit access to the site without special permission until the debris is tested for toxic chemicals such as lead and asbestos.
After the lot is turned back over, maintain caution when visiting the site. Embers beneath the first layer of debris may flare back up when exposed to oxygen, and smoldering areas on the ground can be hard to spot. If you visit your lot, make sure to wear thick boots and gloves. Victims of the Marshall fire should use this link to submit a help request to the Crisis Cleanup crew in Boulder.
The Home Rebuilding Process: Major Milestones
The PreConstruction phase includes everything that will need to be done before you start actually building your new home. The following PreConstruction steps can take anywhere from 3–12 months, depending on your architecture plans and permitting, which include:
- Produce all necessary reports, including a Site Report, GeoTechnical Report, Topographic Map, & Arborist Report.
- Gather all site-specific requirements. After a fire, there may be further site specific considerations to take into account. For example, in Malibu, a customer’s septic tank was completely burned out. He needed three types of specialists to figure out how to remake this site-specific septic tank.
- Begin the Architecture & Design phase for your new home. After a natural disaster, the architecture and design process can be especially taxing. When designing a home, there are thousands of decisions to make. Work with an architecture and design team that has expertise in curating packages to minimize decision fatigue while giving you flexibility over the decisions that matter most to you. Major steps include: Concept design, Schematic design, Design development, Construction drawings, individual product selections—and don’t forget landscaping.
- Research all jurisdiction-specific requirements. In California, an example of these are Title 24 and Cal Green.
- Submit all documents for permitting. If you’re selling, or staying to rebuild, you’ll need all appropriate documentation—available at local government crisis websites.
2. Government Action & Permitting
A big part of the ease of rebuilding is dependent on the actions the larger county takes.
In Santa Rosa, CA, the local government accelerated the permitting process for rebuilds, and for a year or so after the fires, they also hired a third party contractor to help with the unnatural uptick in permitting applications. Both of these strategies helped make rebuilding faster.
Construction begins once permitting has been approved. Depending on the build, construction can take as little as 6 months to over a year. Factors that affect construction are the weather, supply chains, crew availability, etc. Here are the major milestones in construction with some examples of the activities within those milestones:
- Site development
~ City & soils certifications
~ Rough framing and roofing
~ Plumbing, HVAC, Electrical, Fire Sprinklers, Insulation
- Exterior Finishes
- Interior Finishes
~ Drywall, Cabinets, Carpentry, Pain, Trims, Flooring
- Final walkthroughs
Other Important Factors for Home Rebuilds
There is unfortunately no way to rebuild a home that will be 100% fireproof. However, there are several ways to design and build smartly to take precautions, in addition to your community beginning to make new policy changes.
- Consider fire-safe landscaping. While landscaping is beautiful, those flowers could be fueling the fire that will get closer and closer to your house. Many municipalities have implemented rules and regulations to ensure that your landscaping keeps you safe.
- Build ahead of code requirements. Many designers will design a house to meet the basic requirements. Find out from your designers what codes will be changing in the next few years and design your house to also meet those. This will allow you to have the most modern up to day protection.
- Choose your materials carefully. While you cannot build a fire proof house you can choose materials that are less flammable. For example stucco is less likely to burn that shingles.
- Research other potential innovations available. Ex: a pool underneath the home that will activate a wave to cover the house during a fire, exterior sprinkler systems, etc.
Specific Marshall Fire Resources
If any of you have colleagues/friends/family who were impacted by the fires, WeWork is offering space for free in their Denver and Boulder locations through the month of January. They’ll receive the standard amenities that come with any paying membership. They can email supportCO@wework.com for more information.
Thank you for reading, and hopefully sharing with anyone you know that’s been impacted by an unfortunate disaster such as this. As always, we are here to support you during this difficult time. Reach out with any questions or concerns in the Comments section below.