This is Part 4 of a multi-part series that explores the ongoing impacts of the Marshall Fire through interviews with survivors and analysis of the role of climate change and alternatives to recovery such as mutual aid.
Photo by Skinner Myers
Part 4 explores the experiences of Marshall Fire survivors navigating insurance claims, remediation, and more
On a late summer day in Boulder in 2022, while ashes the size of cottonwood seeds wafted past on a westerly breeze, I began collecting photos and interviews about wildfires in the northern Front Range region of Colorado. Later, on an evening just before the new year, I left home to write in a restaurant on the other side of town, taking my go bag just in case, because a wildfire evacuation perimeter had been set up a block away.
As I prepared to leave, I could hear one of my neighbors, an older man I had met for the first time earlier that day, knocking door-to-door to make sure everyone was aware of the danger. Most people seemed distrustful of him and hell-bent on downplaying the danger. More than one person responded rudely, as though his expression of concern were an invasion of privacy and an imposition on their valuable time, rather than an attempt to protect their lives.
With dozens of fires in the area in 2022, the most on record, there is every reason to expect that the intensifying trend will continue. One Boulder neighborhood has organized collectively to bury its power lines in preparation for the next fire emergency. Otherwise, it would seem that so far, relatively few have learned anything practical from the Marshall Fire. We have a long way to go, but for those paying attention, each survivor’s story illuminates ways to make our communities safer and healthier for everyone. Even by talking with just a handful of people affected by the fire, I learned more than I could possibly share in a series of articles.
In the wake of Marshall, the Billinghams knew to remain vigilant in their dealings with insurance companies — an experienced, professionalized, and well-monied perspective that served them well. For example, their first insurance adjuster was often unresponsive to communication regarding compensation for the additional living expenses — ALE — outlined in their policy. It was a challenge, but Carole and Steve finally succeeded in getting a new adjuster to work with, one with greater authority, and their needs were much better satisfied. What would have happened had they been less advantaged and consequently less accustomed to advocating for themselves?
Not long after the fire, Carole and Steve’s first adjuster told them they needed to move back home. After staying in hotels with their dogs and ordering takeout to avoid exposure to COVID, they would have liked nothing more, but they had other serious health concerns to consider.
They could afford to refuse, so they did. Carole describes their attitude as “caution — not fear, but caution. We wanted to go slow and steady.” There was a boil water advisory in effect, and it was obvious to them that the air was filled with dangerous toxins, since homes had burned along with all of their contents, ranging from antifreeze to solar panels, and the debris would take a long time to remove.
Plus, for Carole’s household, avoiding chemical injury isn’t a choice: she suffered a brain trauma in a car accident years ago and is sensitive to the effects of airborne chemicals, and a member of their family lives with an autoimmune disorder. They hired a certified industrial hygienist to test for soot and other toxins in the air and on surfaces in their home. The process of collecting samples and sending them to an independent lab cost $1,800, but for Carole and Steve it was worth it. They wanted to feel confident that they had enough factual information to know whether it was safe to return to their house and to make the best choices available to them. Based on what they learned, they hired a remediation company.
The expense of the process of remediation exposes how the social differences flattened at first by a disaster soon become retrenched. As Skinner Myers told me, “You get to see — fast — the class divide when disaster strikes.” For Carole and many others, remediation was a necessity, and luckily for Carole, she was among those for whom remediation has been effective. For many of the homeowners who could afford it, it has not been.
For other survivors, remediation looked more like a luxury. Stressing over whether to pay thousands, possibly tens of thousands, to improve the air quality in a home is a “first-world problem,” Henry Wong said with grim amusement. The pollution in Guangzhou, which was at its worst when Henry was growing up there — though it was not at all bad by Chinese standards at the time — was “off the charts,” meaning that it was above the upper limit of the US-based Air Quality Index. Each day, residents of Henry’s childhood city inhaled pollution equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes.
Perhaps all would agree, that in a better world, the one many of us believe is possible, everyone’s safety from toxins would be a collective priority rather than a privilege for the few. As things stand, only the well-resourced can afford to engage in concrete, material self-defense against the ableism and exploitation reinforced by disaster capitalism. These are individual stopgaps, not solutions.
At the same time, amid the loss, frustration, and unfairness, the human inclination toward mutual aid showed signs of vitality. Rebecca Solnit has studied this tendency: “in disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, communitarian, generous and deeply creative in rescuing each other, creating the conditions for success of survival and often creating these little disaster utopias where everyone feels equal. Everyone feels like a participant.” Indeed, community donations following the Marshall Fire were very generous. As just one of many examples, a local credit union quickly raised over a million dollars in aid.
Frequently, Marshall survivors found that the assistance available through government, nonprofits, NGOs, church congregations, and insurance only addressed a small part of what they needed. In addition to friends and family, it was often neighbors who came through. Shortly after the fire, one of Carole and Steve Billingham’s neighbors maneuvered clandestinely around the evacuation order so that he could turn everyone’s water off on their circle before the impending freeze, potentially saving them all many thousands of dollars in additional damage due to burst pipes. If this suggests how crucial mutual aid is, even for the comfortable, it also illustrates how much worse things can get without preventive reciprocal support.
Even though the combination of official assistance and support provided through personal relationships was rarely enough, the disaster has made clear that family and friends can offer a starting point for building the infrastructure of mutual aid. Right away, when Fallon Voorheis-Mathews’s friends heard about the loss of her house, they set up a fundraising account on GoFundMe. To help support her fledgling aerial dance company, friends also sold one-dollar tickets to “virtual shows” showing videos of various performances online, where attendees could “like,” share, and make donations.
Fallon observed how people can help one another by using the talents, experiences, and skills that make them unique. One of her closest friends is from Louisiana and worries constantly about their family during hurricane season. As a result, that friend has outstanding skills in crisis support and knows how to help in ways people don’t necessarily know how to ask for.
Another friend, who is trained in survivor advocacy, acted as a barrier between Fallon and the onslaught of communication that quickly arrived as the fire received major media attention — and as Fallon’s to-do list grew exponentially. During those decisive first weeks, Fallon’s friends let everyone know: “if you need something, come through us.” They vetted offers to donate clothes and furniture, so that well-intentioned strangers would not unload worn-out items, a common mistake that enriches donors emotionally but is profoundly unhelpful to recipients.
While numerous households navigated ordeals like Carole and Steve’s in order to return home, great numbers of residents had no home to return to without first undertaking the long process of rebuilding. Even with cooperative efforts such as the community-organized Boulder Valley Builders Expo of green contractors held in late February 2022 , the learning curve has been overwhelming. In a late 2022 email, Makia wrote, “In the months since the fire, I’ve had to learn about insurance, debris removal, construction, construction loans, permitting, city ordinances and countless other things. None of these were in my normal life prior to this, but you find out very quickly how much all of these things matter and how little time you have to learn it.”
Few individuals possess all of the specialized skills necessary to build even a single house, let alone rebuild a community with all of the infrastructure that supports a neighborhood, like water and power. As Makia, who recently celebrated seeing a new foundation laid for his home, points out, “We were all suddenly taking on countless new jobs while attempting to just figure out how to recover from a life changing event. There’s still a lot I have to learn about this process, all the while attempting to recognize our own personal trauma throughout this.”