‘We literally can't plan any farther than right now’: Six months after the Marshall Fire, homeowners face rebuilding challenges
Six months after the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Boulder County, nine rebuilding permits have been issued. But a wide variety of challenges for residents — from underinsurance to local building codes — have meant most fire survivors are nowhere near ready to move back in.
“We could never rebuild what we lost, but we don't really want to,” said Bob Gabriella, whose family has lived in the tiny community of Marshall for generations. “So we figure we can build what we need and what we want.”
But the rebuilding process is not so simple. Fire survivors from Louisville, Superior and unincorporated Boulder County are dealing with their own unique challenges; Marshall in particular because it is historic and rural. The old coal mining town, situated five miles from downtown Boulder is surrounded by open space with clear views of the Flatirons.
On his property, Gabriella had a few old coal miners’ cabins, as well as a structure that had been an old bar and pool hall where he son had recently been living. At the end of the street was a falling-down stone building.
“I had my grandfather's forge set up in there and some old mining lamps and lunch buckets and just kind of a little tribute to this little town,” Gabriella said.
The Marshall Fire started in this area. Bob Gabriella and his wife Diana’s tan stucco house is still standing, but the blaze destroyed all of their old buildings and much of the family’s history. That day, although firefighters did respond to emergency calls, Bob Gabriella had been trying to save some of his old buildings with a shovel and fire extinguishers.
“And the flames were… just it was literally like hell,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I spend any more time here, I'm going to die.’ So that's when I finally headed out. And that was hard.”
Marshall residents navigate next steps
Now, months later, the Gabriellas want to rebuild two of the ten structures they lost — an art studio for Diana, a workshop for Bob — but a long list of issues is delaying a return to normal life.
“How much does a sheet of plywood cost now?” Bob Gabriella wondered. “How are you going to find a person that's actually going to frame this?”
They are unsure if soil testing on their property, one of the final steps in the county-run clean up program, has been completed. They worry about the cost of permitting fees. Permit review came to $12,141 for a home valued at $700,000, one of the first to be permitted in unincorporated Boulder County after the fire.
They want to add a second story to one of their buildings, but it would exceed the amount of allowed square footage under the county’s new rules.
They feel as if future plans, like Bob’s motorcycle trips, are on hold.
“I don't feel comfortable traveling anymore. I like to stay home,” he said. “I need to be here because this guy from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is going to do this. And this insurance guy, I feel like almost manic that I have to be here.”
The Gabriellas are not alone in living with uncertainty. On a recent Saturday, Jenny Simpson, a famous runner and Olympian, hosted many of her neighbors at her home: the old, restored Marshall Schoolhouse. They’ve been gathering here monthly since the fire.
Megan Monroe and her husband had planned to rebuild. They own an architectural firm so their plans are designed, engineered and ready to submit to the county.
“But right now, we just had a kind of wakening that right now, it's not right for our family,” Monroe said.
Instead, Monroe recently bought a house in south Boulder. In December, Monroe remembers glimpsing the fire through her window without any warning and then evacuating with her kids.
“I look and I see all the burnt trees and I just know that my property was just engulfed in a matter of minutes,” she said. “And there's no water down here.”
Marshall, like many rural areas, lacks fire hydrants — although a nearby cistern did have some water in it that day according to Deputy Chief Sterling Folden with Mountain View Fire Rescue. Folden estimates six fire trucks responded to emergency calls in Marshall that morning.
“There wasn’t enough water in general that day,” he said, referring to all of the affected communities.
Now, talks to pipe water into Marshall from neighboring towns are in the early stages.
“But the infrastructure piece is a key piece here that for me to feel safe in my own home has to change,” Monroe said.
With her two young kids circling, Molly McCray, who recently returned to Marshall after years abroad with the U.S. Army, plans to stay; she lost her childhood home in the fire.
“We'll do whatever it takes to rebuild,” McCray said.
McCray is in the early stages of this process; her family is starting to consult with builders. She says working with the county has been difficult, particularly on square footage restrictions. As with so many fire survivors, underinsurance is a huge concern for her. Depending on the price per square foot to rebuild, the Colorado Division of Insurance estimates that between one-third and two-thirds of Marshall Fire survivors are underinsured.
“The budget is going to be something we're going to have to be creative and work through. But the thought of selling it — it just doesn't work,” McCray said.
Some assistance is available. The U.S. Small Business Administration has approved $91.2 million for impacted homeowners; funding will likely be used towards closing the gap between insurance and the costs of rebuilding. Colorado legislators recently passed a new law offering a $10,000 grant for new energy efficient homes. The Recovery Navigator program launched this month to help impacted families access donations to the Boulder County Wildfire Fund and other funding sources.
“Here people are thrust into a position where they had no plans to do any of this and trying to navigate through all the different facets of rebuilding from hiring a designer, selecting contractors, understanding regulations and permitting, working with their insurance companies,” said Dale Case, director of community planning and permitting for Boulder County. “It's just a whole lot for them to have to try to address at one time.”
Homeowners have all been assigned rebuilding coordinators to help them through this process. In March, the county approved new regulations meant to streamline requirements for fire survivors.
“In a place like Marshall, where you have some unique lot layout, it's not platted like your typical subdivision would be today with standard plotlines, lines and setbacks and things like that,” Case said. “It does raise issues that we need to look at.”
‘It’s hard to balance the loss with the hope’
“There's no going back to the old,” Diana Gabriella said. “We just can't.”
Sitting under a tree, by a small creek across the street from their house, Bob and Diana Gabriella envision their property with wildflowers and native grasses, a place where their granddaughter can play safely.
“We don't need all of these old out-buildings. I don't need three motorcycles. I don't need four old cars,” Bob Gabriella said.
The Gabriellas have recently gotten some good news. All debris on their property has been cleaned up. After submitting some new paperwork related to setbacks, they are now one step closer to getting a building permit for their new barn.
“Early on after the fire, it was really emotional. Can we live here again? Because it will never be what it was for the last hundred years,” he said. “And it's hard to balance the loss with the hope, but I think we're doing pretty well right now.”