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Burned Again: Underinsured Fourmile Fire Victims

Fourmile Fire victims find out the harsh truth about filing claims and being underinsured.

If you haven’t looked at your policy in a while, there’s no time like the present.

By Mark Collins

Labor Day morning in 2010, Mike Sanders decided he would finally install the hideaway ironing board his wife, Jane, wanted him to build. Jane made breakfast while their two children, Nicholas and Sedona, played.

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Photo by Four Oaks

That’s when Mike’s pager went off. Like many who live in the Boulder foothills, Mike is a volunteer firefighter. He grabbed some bacon, got into one of the family’s vehicles and headed to the Fourmile Fire Department.

“I expected to be gone a couple of hours,” Mike recalled this past spring. Even though by late morning on Sept. 6, 2010, the winds were whipping in unpredictable ways, most firefighters thought they’d be home in time for dinner. But dinner became the last thing on Mike’s mind after he and his small crew met a series of blazes up the canyon.

“I quickly realized this wasn’t a regular fire,” he says. “It was just running downhill…It was like nothing we’d ever seen around here.”

It was like nothing Colorado had seen either.

The Fourmile Fire was the most devastating fire in the state’s history. Before it was fully contained—eight days after it started 5 miles west of Boulder as the result of an untended fire pit—the fire had devoured 6,181 acres and displaced 169 families whose homes were destroyed. Even before the fire was extinguished, residents who had lost homes had filed more than $215 million in insurance claims, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

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For many residents, the Fourmile Fire played out like a movie: The early morning sky had been so blue before heavy black smoke filled it that Labor Day. Deafening winds were interrupted by periods of eerie silence, only to be overtaken by the roar of encroaching flames. The frantic packing, driving down the mountain and out of harm’s way, a restless night wondering what’s become of your home.

The Sanderses learned the fire had consumed their home the morning of Sept. 7. Their nightmare had officially begun, and they would soon learn it wasn’t going away. If the fire was cinematic in scope, the days, weeks and months that followed became more like a Russian novel filled with nearly overwhelming details from tedious tasks, each one reminding the Sanderses of the unsettled nature of their new lives.

After they lost their home, the Sanderses checked into a local hotel. On Friday, four days after the blaze began, they decided to enlist Housing Helpers, a Boulder rental agency, to help them find a home to rent. Friday morning there were 80 rental homes on the market in Boulder, Jane recalls. By 2 p.m. that afternoon, only two remained. But the Sanderses found a place and made plans to move what few belongings they had.

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“October was a nightmare,” Mike says. November wasn’t much better. Then the holidays came. “It didn’t seem like a holiday.”

The couple is quick to point out that in their time of need, many people stepped in to help. “If there was a positive about this, it was discovering how much people supported and cared for you as you were going through this,” Mike says. “People were so generous; it was amazing,” Jane adds. Friends from church, their kids’ swim team, and families from the football team Mike coached pitched in with meals, clothing and housewares.

From Customer to Adversary

But early in 2011, a startling realization sank in. Though the Sanderses thought they were adequately insured, they discovered their homeowner’s policy would only cover 64 percent of what it would take to rebuild their home, replace all its contents, redo the landscape, replace outbuildings, and pay for the post-fire debris removal and pollution abatement. And not even that 64 percent would come easy

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“You are their customer, until you have a major claim,” Jane says. “Then you’re their adversary.”

The couple’s homeowner’s policy called for the insurer to reimburse the Sanderses a percentage for each item in their home when they replaced it, up to 12 months after the fire. Jane says she and Mike spent at least 200 hours filling out spreadsheets detailing each object—every piece of glassware, chair, computer wire, tool, earring, shirt, sock, stuffed animal, book. “It took us two or three months to get our heads around it,” Mike says. Jane adds, “It’s so difficult, emotionally, having to itemize each thing in your house.” Much less remember every item you had.

Making matters more complicated was the fact that the insurer would not reimburse for items lost until the Sanderses had documented and purchased replacements. But where do you put household items collected over 15 years when you’re living in a smaller rental house?

After getting the runaround or being stonewalled, the couple quickly learned to take notes from each encounter with insurance company representatives. “Make sure you document everything,” Jane says. “You have to be your own advocate.”

Foot-dragging by their insurance company, the Sanderses say, also made the decision on whether to rebuild or buy in Boulder more difficult. “Until we actually get paid out totally, things are still up in the air,” Jane says.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFilling out form upon form, negotiating with their insurer, and living in a rental home for the past year, the Sanderses still have not obtained what every family wants: a place of their own. Like so many others who lost homes in the Fourmile Fire, the Sanderses are still trying to get their lives back to normal more than a year later.

“Every night, you go to bed working on something,” Jane says.

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