The remains of a Louisville home destroyed by the Marshall Fire reveal a heartfelt message left by previous homeowners. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

Four months after the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Superior and Louisville, Community Foundation Boulder County on May 2, 2022, held its second public meeting on the dispersal of most of the remaining $28.5 million in earmarked disaster relief raised through its Boulder County Wildfire Fund.

During the first public meeting at the Superior Business Center on March 28, Community Foundation CEO Tatiana Hernandez outlined the nonprofit’s plan to dedicate the vast majority of the remaining funds — approximately $20 million — to help affected homeowners rebuild in southern Boulder County. 

Monday night at the Louisville Recreation and Senior Center, she provided details for the first time about how that money would get divvied up among households. 

Hernandez presented an estimated formula that would determine who gets what. She laid out details for a Recovery Navigators Program, a one-on-one resource counseling service expected to be up and running as soon as mid-June, administered as a public-private partnership between Boulder County and a yet-to-be-named nonprofit. The presentation also included plans for the $2.5 million pot of money for “unmet needs.” This money would be given to renters and the uninsured to help with everyday expenses. Unlike the rest of the funding, it is not restricted to those staying in the county.

The sheer amount of money raised and distributed by the Community Foundation – by comparison, $2.2 million was processed by the foundation after the 2013 floods – has added complexity to the task of dispensing aid. Hernandez called the amount “unprecedented” during the March 28 meeting. 

The decisions made for the wildfire fund, Hernandez said, were driven above all by the need to create an “incredibly easy” process for fire survivors. “Every decision goes through that lens: ‘Is this easy for people?’ If the answer is no, we don’t necessarily go down that route,” she said. 

Hernandez suggested that using philanthropic disaster dollars for rebuilding post-disaster was uncharted territory for community foundations. And she criticized what she called the national model for disaster recovery.

“When we looked at the national model, it was all services, no financial support. [Ask] anyone who’s a fire survivor in California, or fire survivors across Colorado,” she told attendees. “We said, ‘That’s not going to work for us. That’s not what our need is.’” 

Hernandez pointed to the immediate dispersal of more than $7 million in direct aid during the fire’s immediate aftermath as evidence of the foundation’s departure from those service-based approaches to disaster relief. 

“We’re not doing the [national] model,” she said.

Tatiana Hernandez, CEO of the Community Foundation Boulder County, updating the public on how money from the Boulder County Wildfire Fund will be spent during the first public presentation at the Superior Business Center on March 28, 2022. Credit: Melissa Bailey

Missing data and the Recovery Navigator Program

A total of 1,084 homes were destroyed when the Marshall Fire tore through Superior and Louisville, and 149 more were damaged. Among those displaced, it still remains unclear how many were homeowners versus renters. (Just about every other census-type data is also missing.) The Community Foundation released its first survey of fire survivors in March, to try to fill in those fuzzy details to determine household income and other demographic information. 

It’s also not clear how many homeowners are rebuilding, how many have chosen not to build back on their lots, or how many remain in limbo. People are already relocating due to cost reasons and uncertainty, health concerns over air and water quality, and other issues. 

For now, the “bold” assumption the foundation is operating under, according to Hernandez, is that 75% of survivors will rebuild. That would mean 813 households would receive funding for rebuilding, according to the Community Foundation.

“The national average after a disaster event is for 25% of homes to be either rebuilt or in the process of being rebuilt after five years,” Hernandez said in an interview. “So we are hoping that a different approach will change the timeline, and will incentivize people to rebuild quicker and stay, because we think that’s in the best interest of our community.”

The foundation presented a formula for determining how these funds would be divided among homeowners, assuming the 75% estimate pans out. For instance, a household with two children would receive $23,000 from the rebuild fund. But if the assumption is incorrect, those amounts would change. The funds would be available to community members for three years, according to the foundation’s current estimates. 

A slide from the May 2 presentation on relief dispersal shows the breakdown of the Community Foundation’s formula for dividing up funds allocated for rebuilding homes in Boulder County.

Approximately $1 million of the remaining funds will go toward the Recovery Navigator Program, a public-private partnership designed to connect fire victims with disaster relief services through one-on-one counseling. Garry Sanfaçon, disaster recovery manager for Boulder County, said the county will contribute an additional $400,000. Mid-June is the target date for the program, which will be administered by the county and a yet-to-be-named nonprofit.

Sanfaçon offered details about the program, which is currently funded for two years. Sanfaçon said the county is currently working to develop a contract with a local nonprofit to hire, train and supervise a bullpen of “recovery navigators” who will be available — both virtually and at a currently undetermined physical location — to help survivors access resources, rebates, legal services, insurance assistance and more. The goal is to hire six to nine navigators.

“These people will be available to you to whatever extent you need,” he said.

In the meantime, Sanfaçon said local nonprofits like Sister Carmen and Jewish Family Service are offering case management support. 

During public comment, one fire survivor expressed concern about overhead regarding the Recovery Navigator Program. 

“One of the biggest needs, I think, for a lot of people, is financial resources. And so that’s one of my concerns with any of this,” he said. “You’ve got all these people who are funded to help [us], but they’re being paid, and basically taking away the money that could go to help [us].”

Equity and ‘Unmet Needs’

The decision to dedicate the lion’s share of relief funding toward those who are rebuilding in Boulder County has raised questions throughout this process of equity and fairness among some residents. 

Hernandez said the foundation is trying to address these concerns through its “unmet needs” program, currently funded at $2.5 million, which will help some fire survivors cover expenses like rental assistance, childcare, medical bills and more.

“We have been fortunate, thanks to the incredible generosity of people, to be able to do what I call the ‘both hands’ approach,” Hernandez said. “We’re both tending to the needs of folks who are most vulnerable, and prioritizing and incentivizing rebuilding to the best of our ability.”

According to the Colorado Division of Insurance (DOI), $1.02 billion in losses have been submitted for home insurance claims related to the Dec. 30 disaster. The division’s data survey did not include rental properties or homes covered by commercial policies. Of the 951 total loss claims analyzed by the DOI, only 76 had guaranteed replacement coverage policies that would allow for the rebuilding of homes of similar quality and size with no cap.   

The Boulder County Wildfire Fund has raised $40.8 million from roughly 77,000 donors. The foundation has so far dispersed about $8.1 million — including $5.5 million in direct payments to homeowners and renters whose properties were damaged or destroyed. An additional $1.5 million was provided to offset lost wages and livelihood equipment.  

An additional $3.4 million still needs to be allocated for spending, Hernandez said. 

“We’re running a marathon,” she said. “This is a multi-year process. There will be things that come up that we don’t know yet.” 

With that long view of recovery in mind, Hernandez emphasized what she considers an essential role played by survivors themselves in the process of rebuilding more than their homes.

“We want to make sure that you all are a resource, so that every time somebody’s lot gets cleared, there’s a party. Every time a shovel goes in the ground, there’s a cookout,” she said. “That is critically important to all of this, because it’s what will keep your spirits up throughout the marathon we’re in right now. It will keep you connected to this community — because, again, we want you to come home.”

Jezy J. Gray

Jezy Gray was the former managing editor of Boulder Reporting Lab. In addition to years of writing on the culture, politics and history of my home state of Oklahoma, he was the final editor-in-chief of the Tulsa Voice, a local bi-weekly newspaper where I led a small but mighty team of journalists to regional and national honors in feature writing, diversity reporting, LGBTQ+ coverage and more.