Adam Sloat was on the third level of a building in downtown Boulder closing a real estate deal with clients. He remembers the wind.
“The building was just swaying in that crazy wind, even though it was all brick,” he says.
It was Dec. 30, 2021 — the day of the Marshall Fire. Sloat eventually saw smoke to the east — he heard there was a grass fire by Foothills and 36. Meanwhile, his wife Dani began to see smoke in their neighborhood in Louisville. She decided to play it safe and take their 10-year-old twins, Grace and Jack, to Sloat’s dad’s house in North Boulder, not knowing there was already an evacuation order at the time.
Once Sloat met his family, he got a call from a neighbor saying the house across the street from theirs was on fire.
“Even then, with the winds being so crazy, I was being optimistic: ‘Maybe it’ll be fine. Maybe it’s not going to cross the street,’” he says he thought at the time. “But it did.”
A few days later, Sloat drove back to their neighborhood to confirm what they already knew.
“It was just surreal. Because not only was the neighborhood gone, but everything’s black and charred and covered in white, beautiful snow,” he says. “And we had a beautiful blue Colorado sky, because the snow had passed. I mean, it just didn’t look real.”
Now, Sloat and his family are rebuilding their home from the black-charred rubble. On top of good insurance, they are beneficiaries of the Community Foundation Boulder County’s Wildfire Fund, which sent them $5,000 initially after the fire, and then $20,000 to help support their rebuilding efforts.
“We’re lucky, even though it’s a very unlucky thing that happened,” Sloat says.
Among recovering Marshall Fire survivors, Sloat’s family is lucky.
Over the last year, the Community Foundation raised $43 million from more than 77,000 donors to support survivors of the Marshall Fire. But for an organization that typically distributes $10 million annually, it has been a herculean task to equitably address the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, which is expected to exceed $2 billion in damage. While there are many success stories, one year after the fire the total impacts of the 10-square-mile burn area and the 15-square-mile smoke-damage area are unknown, causing challenges in distributing funds and confusion in the community surrounding why it took so long to receive funds, or, for some, how they can receive funds at all.
The Community Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization that has granted more than $100 million to local nonprofits since 1991. Over the last 30 years, the foundation helped distribute seven disaster funds, including relief for COVID, the Cal-Wood Fire and the King Soopers shooting.
The foundation is distributing grants from its Wildfire Fund to organizations including Boulder County, United Policyholders and Jewish Family Service of Colorado to provide services such as insurance navigation, mental health support and crisis counseling. To date, there are 10 organizational grantees with approved funding from the Boulder County Wildfire Fund.
In the first few weeks after the fire, the Community Foundation responded by distributing approximately $8 million for immediate needs, including $5.5 million in direct financial assistance to households damaged or destroyed. That’s where the Sloat family got their $5,000 check, which he called “a godsend.”
In July, the Community Foundation provided $1 million to Boulder County to help establish the Navigating Disaster for Boulder County Program and its recovery navigators to assist residents impacted by the Marshall Fire develop a recovery plan. Denver-based Lutheran Family Services, a partner of the program, helped hire and train the navigators.
Recovery navigators are public-facing workers who interact with families and community members one-on-one to help them access an array of support like mental health services, access to resources from local nonprofits and referrals to legal and insurance claims advisors. In some cases, the navigators help survivors access money from the Boulder County Wildfire Fund.
According to the Community Foundation’s website, the largest chunk of money allocated to support survivors of the fire is $20 million for rebuilding efforts. Tatiana Hernandez, the Community Foundation’s CEO, says that dollar amount came from an assumption that 75% of households would rebuild.
Next is $2.5 million to support unmet basic needs like rent or mortgage assistance, childcare, transportation and more. Both pools of money are being distributed by Loveland-based nonprofit Impact Development Fund.
To be eligible for funds from the $20 million allocated for rebuilding, households must provide evidence of a gap between a builder’s quote and insurance coverage, and also apply for a permit to rebuild. If eligible, a household receives a minimum $20,000 and up to nearly $40,000, depending on factors like if they are a single parent, lower income or have dependents. The money is given to a vendor (contractor building the house), not to the household directly.
As of the beginning of December, 144 households have been approved for rebuild funding, and 120 have already gotten that money. So far, $3.4 million has been approved, and $2.8 million has been dispersed. According to the Community Foundation, it is distributing funds at the pace of households choosing to rebuild.
Deanne Pickel says she and her husband can’t afford to rebuild, even if they received help from the Community Foundation.
“From day one, I’ve just been so upset with how they’re handling this,” she says. “It’s not fair.”
Pickel, 63, lived in her home in the original old town of Superior with her husband from 1995 until it was destroyed by the fire.
“[The fire] was devastating. It was just unbelievable. It was definitely hard. In a million years, I didn’t think that would ever happen,” she says.
Pickel says she and her husband were underinsured. Rebuilding is out of the question for them because of high building costs and not wanting to take on that much debt at their age. Despite her whole family living in Colorado, she is looking to move out of state where she says she can afford a home.
Pickle says the amount they could get from the rebuilding fund would only account for a fraction of their rebuild costs.
The average cost to build a home in Colorado is just under $300,000, according to a July 2022 report from Forbes.
Pickel did receive $1,500 in early January from the Community Foundation, and $1,000 from the unmet needs fund for their car. She says the recovery navigators were helpful, but she was still frustrated with not receiving more support.
“I’m hoping that $2,500 is not the total amount that our family receives out of $43 million,” says Pickel, who wants to see the money distributed evenly to survivors, regardless of rebuild status.
Hernandez, at the Community Foundation, says the Marshall Fire was a “multi-billion dollar loss — $43 million is a drop in the bucket there.”
Hernandez says the organization draws on experience when developing a strategy for distributing funds.
“If we think back to the floods of 2013, it really took us four to five years for the community to recover from those costs,” she says. “So as a foundation, we do not rush to get money out immediately because we know the needs change over time.”
But the loss is especially acute for survivors with little or no insurance.
“I think our community is generally severely underinsured,” says Reina Pomeroy, who volunteers on the board of Marshall Together, a grassroots organization focused on preserving community and serving as a communication channel. “Like, to the tune of $200,000 per family.”
Meryl Suissa, who started the Facebook page Marshall Fire Community to help fill families’ gap of lost items and knows “the ins and outs of their lives,” empathizes with the households that were underinsured.
“Do I get it from the family’s point of view? Yes,” Suissa says.“Some families are underinsured upwards of $700,000, and no one is there to make them whole.”
When asked why funds are not being distributed evenly to survivors, Eric Schoenborn, vice president of engagement at the Community Foundation, wrote in an email:
“The Community Foundation has prioritized the needs of individuals and households in its distribution of the Boulder County Wildfire Fund while also keeping in mind the impact this event has on the entire community.”
Additionally, the IRS applies “expenditure responsibility” for foundations to see that the grant is spent only for the purpose for which it is made (rebuilding in this case) and to obtain reports from grantees on how the funds are spent.
Katie Arrington is an assistant recovery manager of the Navigating Disaster program, which manages the recovery navigators, and works with the Community Foundation regularly. She says folks who are underinsured can apply for unmet needs funds, but those are smaller dollar amounts.
She doesn’t mince words about the outcome: “We will lose them from our community.”
Arrington adds bluntly, “There’s not a holistic way to make households whole after a disaster, especially a disaster of this magnitude.”
The ‘lucky ones’
Even homes that survived the fire endured varying degrees of smoke damage that necessitated extensive repairs.
“I don’t really want to talk about smoke damage, because it’s the bane of my existence,” says Arrington.
“Smoke damage is so hard and complicated,” she explains. “And I think we’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg with how many people we have impacted by that because there’s not a hard number. We know how many homes were destroyed and we do not know how many homes had smoke damage impacts.”
Boulder County counted 1,084 homes destroyed by the fire and 149 damaged. Bill Hayes, the County’s air quality coordinator, told Boulder Reporting Lab, “There are between 13,000 and 14,000 homes in the burn area that were not destroyed. I think it’s safe to say that a large majority of those [homes] suffered a degree of smoke damage ranging from mild to severe.”
Arrington says the County is working on getting a better estimate, but right now “there just is not a good one.”
Boulder Weekly spoke with one survivor whose home was standing after the fire, but has been unable to move back in due to smoke damage. The source requested to remain anonymous. We’ll call her Kelly.
When a home has smoke damage, industrial hygienists are hired to measure hazards that might impact the health of occupants. Kelly’s insurance said her home is clean enough to move back in, but she doesn’t agree because “if you go into my house, you’d see ash all over everything.”
“If it was just me, I would probably just go back in,” she says. ”But I have a child who’s been in the emergency room for breathing problems. It doesn’t feel like a great choice to go back into a home with a lot of small particulates. It doesn’t seem worth it.”
When Kelly hired an independent industrial hygienist to inspect her home, they found toxic chemicals behind the drywall and recommended more mitigation than Kelly’s insurance company is willing to do.
Kelly’s combination of smoke damage and insurance woes are not unique to her family. Arrington at the County says they’ve become aware of this issue only in the last month or so, with “a lot of residents coming to recovery navigation or to Boulder County who are struggling with what to do here.”
Part of the challenge is that there is no central body that regulates whether or not a house is safe after smoke damage.
Adding to Kelly’s challenges was the amount of time it took to reach the recovery navigators. She says she first filled out a form to initiate the recovery navigation process when the program started in July. She was told she would hear back in two weeks, but didn’t hear from them until mid-November when she finally decided to drop by the navigator’s office in Louisville in person.
The following week, she had an appointment with a navigator. She said she was told to apply for FEMA support, which she had done previously and been denied. She’s not optimistic she’ll get money from anyone.
Meanwhile, Kelly’s insurance is no longer offering Additional Living Expenses (ALE), which covers some costs if your home is temporarily uninhabitable, forcing her to pay a mortgage and rent since Aug. 9.
“Then you’re in a tight spot, and I think that’s what a lot of people are dealing with at this point is those types of choices,” she says. “For us, it’s like we either sell the house or we try to figure out how to live with double payments every month. Hopefully they’ll pay out on the policy. I don’t know what the other options are.”
When asked if people are eligible for funds while they wait to hear from insurance, Arrington says, “People are eligible for discussing unmet needs and possible funding while they are in discussions with insurance. However, to access the grant rebuilding funds, the insurance process should mostly be completed.”
While there’s still a backlog of people waiting to hear from the recovery navigators, “That’s going to be all cleaned up,” Arrington says. “That should be all squared away by the end of [December] and that really was just a staffing-to-need ratio [problem].”
When the program started, there were two recovery navigators. Now there are 10 full-time recovery navigators and two on-site program managers.
Kelly, the homeowner with smoke damage, says seeking support from the navigators hasn’t been easy, clear or timely. She is grateful for the support of people in the community, but is frustrated and confused with how the funds are being distributed.
Adam Sloat also has frustrations about the time it took the Community Foundation and Navigating Disaster Program to respond to people’s needs.
“I hate that they sat on millions of dollars for months on end, and did not find a way to get that to people who needed it right away,” he said. “That was a fucking failure. However, at this point, once they got out their messaging saying, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’ for us, it went as they said it would go. It took a little bit of time, but they said it would take a little bit of time. And you know, the assistance is great.”
Hernandez says the Community Foundation looks to fill gaps in support available to survivors, and understanding coverage from FEMA, the state, other local organizations and insurance groups takes time to navigate.
Some Marshall Fire survivors only have 12 months of ALE coverage. Hernandez has “deep concerns” around what happens to households when that coverage runs out. She says it’s something they are trying to find out how to support, but “at this current moment, there just isn’t enough raised thus far to help support.”
On Dec. 11, the Colorado Division of Insurance requested that insurers extend ALE coverage if their policy had a minimum of 12 months of coverage.
The Community Foundation and Navigating Disaster for Boulder County program are also aware of folks struggling with smoke damage claims. But without accurate data, it is hard to assess how widespread smoke-damage issues are and the best way to allocate funds toward repair.
“We need to have an understanding and good data to be able to make good decisions,” says Hernandez. “And that’s probably been the most challenging for not just this event, but any disaster. Good quality information is the hardest thing to come by.”
The Community Foundation is working on adjusting the parameters of what qualifies as a rebuild to support smoke-damaged homes, but haven’t released anything publicly yet.
“[Smoke damage] could be really big, or it could be really little …There’s just a lot of unknowns here,” says Arrington.
Pomeroy, at Marshall Together, says her neighbor’s home is still standing, but they haven’t moved back in yet.
“[Homeowners with smoke damage] do not have nearly the level of support and spotlight that our total loss survivor community does,” says Pomeroy, who lost her own home in the fire. “It’s freaking hard.”
Adam Sloat says he carries guilt because his family was able to rebuild. He admits it’s been a rough year, and the life-changing destruction from the Marshall Fire will stay with him and his family.
“It’s the kind of thing where I don’t know if people ever recover,” he says. “It’s like when somebody loses a parent or family member — do they ever really recover?”
Support flowed out of both the community and beyond for survivors of the Marshall Fire — an unprecedented response to an unprecedented disaster. By the end of the year, only one rebuilt home destroyed in the Marshall Fire will be ready to be moved into.
In a disaster with complex individual and community challenges, Pomeroy says the Community Foundation stepped up to support survivors.
“I think the community has a lot of opinions about how the foundation should spend their money. I want to give the Community Foundation a lot of grace for the decisions that they’re making and to help us navigate this together because it’s not just one year, it’s three and four years that we’re going to be recovering.”
Hernandez says the foundation will be in partnership until the community has recovered, or the funds run out.
“We all want the same thing,” she says. “We all want people to be stabilized in whatever the next step is for them, whether that’s getting back into their home or moving to a different location, whatever it is, whatever it means to re-establish themselves. We all want that.”