Finding Normal After the Disaster: Colorado Wildfire
The Albers refuse to let wildfire drive them away
October 1, 2013 by Staci Giordullo
As the Colorado Black Forest wildfire burned for nine days in June, just 30 miles from her Colorado Springs home, Angie’s List member Carla Albers says she could only watch as the blaze charred acre after acre. A year ago on June 26, the Waldo Canyon fire consumed the Albers’ house and everything in it, as well as 346 other homes and the lives of two residents. Now, she wants to offer advice to other homeowners who lost everything. “We got so much help and support after the fire, we want to pay it forward,” she says. “No one can relate to these families like we can, and we have unique knowledge that will hopefully help them to navigate the next year.”
That invaluable hindsight includes taking the time to decide whether to rebuild, Carla says. While the fire completely destroyed homes on her end of the street, it spared those on the south end and on neighboring streets. But when their next-door neighbors decided not to return and rebuild their home, Carla says her family made the emotional decision to leave the lot they’d lived on for 22 years and purchase the wider property, allowing them to add a third garage bay for their camper. Not yet Angie’s List members, they conferred with several builders and toured several Parade of Homes models before meeting with custom homebuilder John Bridges, owner of highly rated Canaan Company in Monument, Colo. “We knew he was the one,” she says. “Hard to say why — a gut feeling. We liked the fact that he was a small builder, and we liked the quality of the houses we saw.”
Bridges broke ground in November, and the Albers family — Carla, husband Mark, daughter Krista, 20, and son Eric, 18 — returned to their new home in May, right before Eric’s high school graduation. For homeowners looking to rebuild after a fire, Bridges recommends caution. “People who have lost their homes tend to get flooded with letters and fliers from builders offering their services,” he says. “It’s imperative that you exercise patience. When you’re under duress, and you have to make a decision, it’s going to be skewed. This is a catastrophic experience, and deciding what to build, when to build, where to build — it’s better to step back and look at things.”
Before the first shovel of dirt could be turned on the new home, Carla says, it took months of making insurance claims, finding temporary housing and creating home inventory lists. After calling her State Farm insurance agent to start the claim process, she and her husband secured a rental house just a mile from their scorched neighborhood. Carla says her insurance company hired a vendor who handled payments for the house and rental furniture, alleviating them of that task. “Other friends had different experiences with other insurance companies, but it was nice in our case not to have to worry about these issues.”
Next, she compiled an inventory list of the contents of their two-story home, including a basement and garage, to give to the insurance company for reimbursement. “The inventory process was horrible,” Carla says. “You spend countless hours thinking about and documenting things you don’t have any more.” Carla says she’s thankful for the photo albums retrieved by a friend before the evacuation, as those photos provided images of what to include. She also used her smartphone to take some pictures around the house and garage before evacuating. “Imagine, if you will, one room in your house and try to visualize everything in it,” she says. “Not an easy task.”
Using documents she kept in a “furniture” file, Carla says she worked with a local Ethan Allen furniture store to attach value to items on the inventory list. “I had pictures of our furniture, and we recreated what we had,” she says. “Everyone knew about the fire and everyone seemed so willing to spend time to help us.” Her list ended up 69 pages long with 983 items, she says, and she encourages others to inventory their home before disaster strikes. “Please take a minute and think about whether you have good documentation of your possessions and if not, take some time to photograph or videotape your belongings,” she advises. “Don’t say it will never happen to you — because sometimes, it does.”
The Albers’ neighbors, Angie’s List members Tom Haynes and Marty Novak-Haynes, also decided to rebuild on another neighbor’s corner lot, and found Dave Hammer, owner of Hammer Custom Homes in Colorado Springs. “After visiting his models and asking for references, we were convinced he would do a great job,” Marty says. “And he did.” The couple moved into their new home in March, and Marty says they’re enjoying a newly found kinship with their neighbors. She encourages all homeowners to review their insurance policies, and verify coverage. “Always re-evaluate your insurance,” she says. “We had just remodeled in 2010, so thankfully, we had upped our coverage and went with a premium policy.”
A crew with Canaan Company, a homebuilder in Monument, Colo., prepares the Albers home for stucco application. (Photo courtesy of Carla Albers)
Most importantly, the two women say, maintain patience. The Albers’ new ranch-style house with a basement and covered deck required many decisions — from selecting materials and finishes to designing a layout and landscape scheme. “Our challenge revolved around the many decisions we had to make, not just the house, but in replacing every piece of furniture, every plate, every bathroom item,” Carla says. “We got to a point where we were exhausted by all the decisions.” She says she joined Angie’s List in April to search for highly rated movers and landscapers, and says she’s very happy with the companies she chose. “We are slowly figuring out our house,” she says. “There are so many things to love about it. And, it’s still bittersweet. Although I love our new home, I’d trade it in a heartbeat for our old home and old things.”
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