Katie Svoboda-Rini’s house escaped the flames of the Marshall Fire as it blazed through her Rock Creek neighborhood in Superior. The houses behind and upwind of hers, however, burned so intensely that the heat warped her home’s windows — pulling the glass off the frames and leaving gaps. Smoke blew into the cracks to fill her house with ash, char and other toxic compounds.
Though the blaze never touched her home, it was ruined.
“The Town of Superior declared our house destroyed,” said Svoboda-Rini “We have to go through a full-build permitting process rather than just a remodel.”
In this case, a rebuild means gutting the house to its studs, cleaning out all toxic materials, replacing the windows, and reconstructing it from the original skeleton.
Despite the assessment from the town and her insurer, the process to rebuild has been anything but straightforward for Svoboda-Rini and her family — which includes her husband, seven-year-old daughter and three dogs. And the costs to try and return to a safe home are mounting.
The demolition and cleaning alone have reached $280,000, almost half the amount the Svoboda-Rini family received from their insurance’s “dwelling” coverage. The cleaning expense would not have been so high had an industrial hygienist not deemed the interior full of “hazardous materials,” necessitating extra care in drywall and insulation removal. Their policy’s coverage of nearly $570,000 was supposed to cover an interior renovation of their home. But the cleaning depleted that coverage quicker than expected.
“We are about $200,000 short on our rebuild,” she said. “We found out it would have been the same cost to just knock it down and rebuild the whole thing. We weren’t really given the option of knocking it down.”
More than 16 months after the Marshall Fire, survivors like Svoboda-Rini continue to exist in ambiguous territory. Their homes remained standing after the fire, but in the worst cases, they’re uninhabitable. Some smoke-damaged homes look fine on the outside. Inside, however, so many toxic compounds from the fire plume left residue on surfaces and were absorbed into building materials that residents have reported feeling physical symptoms, a project last year by Boulder Reporting Lab, the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder and KUNC radio found.
Amid a lack of scientific understanding regarding the safe levels of ash, char and other compounds that can be present inside homes — combined with a largely unregulated remediation industry — some of these survivors have reported feeling left out of conversations surrounding disaster recovery.
Because flames never touched them, their insurance claims are often denied, and they’re not always eligible for rebuilding resources like other Marshall Fire survivors. The Svoboda-Rini home, for instance, was denied an Xcel Energy rebate to rebuild up to 2021 energy efficiency codes because it’s not being built from the foundation.
Yet the main arm of local charity for survivors has taken a step toward recognizing this type of displacement. The Community Foundation Boulder County expanded funding eligibility criteria for Marshall Fire victims to include those who need to entirely rebuild the interior of their home due to smoke or ash damage.
As of December 2022, anyone who has a building permit to rebuild or fix their home due to burn, smoke or ash damage can apply to receive funds from the Community Foundation. The foundation has raised more than $43 million for fire survivors through its Boulder County Wildfire Fund. It allocated about half of that to those rebuilding on their original lots.
“If your smoke and ash damage caused you to completely rebuild your home, you are eligible,” said Tatiana Hernandez, CEO of the Community Foundation, in an interview.
The foundation’s “rebuild fund” has approved roughly $7 million for about 300 households. It does not track how many applicants are rebuilding due to burn damage versus severe smoke and ash damage, so it’s unclear how many standing home survivors have been approved under this eligibility. Those rebuilding qualify for at least $20,000 from the fund.
“What we’re finding [with smoke and ash damage] … is that upfront there may have been insurance coverage for some of the cosmetic or surface level cleaning, maybe some siding repair,” said Megan Ferguson of the Impact Development Fund, which is working with the Community Foundation to process applications for the rebuild fund, during a recent townhall. “But now what is coming out over time is that the damage and the health effects are much deeper.”
Left: The Svoboda-Rini’s standing home (tan) can be seen on Dec. 31, 2021, one day after the Marshall Fire. Burned remains of their neighbors’ homes are visible. Right: The back of the Svoboda-Rini’s home can be seen on Nov. 24, 2022, nearly 11 months later. The windows are boarded up and the burned landscaping and trees have been removed. Courtesy of Katie Svoboda-Rini
“We’re still looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in these homes to bring them back to a livable condition,” Ferguson added.
The lack of data to understand the scope of smoke damage has made it difficult to fairly allocate funds to this survivor group. This is not uncommon following catastrophic wildland-urban fires like the Marshall Fire, which are a growing risk as climate change worsens. The incineration and release of chemicals from not just trees and grasslands, but homes, cars and other urban materials, pose unique and less visible dangers. These risks are only beginning to be studied.
Currently, Boulder has no clear estimate of the number of homes that experienced smoke damage from the Marshall Fire. The county has identified roughly 1,084 residential structures destroyed in the fire and about 150 damaged. But there remains no number associated with those dealing with the impacts caused by smoke and ash from the fire’s plume as it filled homes downwind of the blaze. The level of smoke damage — and risk to human health — can also vary. People have received mixed reports from remediators about levels of pollution. Amid the uncertainty, some have chosen to sell.
‘Trying to grasp something in the dark’
In allocating $20 million to those rebuilding on their original lots, the hope was that 75% of homes would be rebuilt, according to Hernandez. However, “it was clear that deploying these funds for smoke and ash affected homes fell into this gray area,” she said. “We need a third-party verification of the damage.”
For Hernandez, an estimate would help the Community Foundation allocate funds to better serve residents who fall outside the simple category of “total loss” victims.
“If someone were tracking this information, it would mean we aren’t trying to grasp something in the dark. Right now, it is like, are we trying to grab a cup or a barrel?” she said.
In the vacuum, the Community Foundation estimates that perhaps 200 households could have endured smoke damage severe enough to warrant a rebuild.
After waiting a few months to hear back on their application, Svoboda-Rini’s family was approved for a $21,000 grant this month. This gets them closer to covering the $200,000 in remaining rebuild expenses not covered by insurance. In the meantime, their house remains gutted but the windows and siding have been replaced.
“All in all, we have 75% loss,” she said.
Meanwhile, several neighbors who had smoke damage have moved back in after cleaning and replacing furniture and carpet. Neighbors upwind, whose houses burned down and blew smoke directly into Svoboda-Rini’s home, have listed their lots for sale.
When it comes to recovering from a catastrophic wildfire in an urban area, there remains much that is unknown, Hernandez said.
“This is a long process to rebuild our community,” she said. “We know there are needs that are going to come up that we have not even anticipated yet.”
“We are in uncharted territory when it comes to a megafire.”