Note: I will add more wildfire survivors tips over time, so please check back.
As a wildfire survivor, I can offer a few tips that may help survivors face the frustration they will feel during this process. If you know someone who was impacted by the Marshall Fire, please feel free to copy/print or forward these tips to them. It may help in some small way.
DISCLAIMER: I am not an attorney or an insurance professional. I offer these tips based on my own experience recovering from a wildfire. Your experience may be different.
Wildfire Survivor Tips (added 1-6-22)
20. Definitely notify your insurance company right away, so they can establish your claim, but do not let yourself be pressured to settle your entire claim too soon. Make sure you have a clear understanding of the in’s and out’s of your policy and insurance coverage limits. You should be able to take draws from your personal property “bucket” to purchase essentials.
21. The security deposit for your temporary housing rental may or may not be covered. The thinking is that a security deposit will be returned to you at the end of your rental period. Ask the rental owner if they would waive it.
22. Don’t remove anything from your property until after your insurance adjuster has arrived and taken pictures. You don’t want to compromise your claim.
23. Be careful when you walk your property. Some trees may have burned down to the ground and then continued burning down to the roots, leaving holes you can trip over and step into.
24. Everyone you meet will have a story about how they experienced the wildfire, even those who were evacuated but didn’t lose their home. Listening is the best gift you can give them. There are no winners in a pain competition.
25. Post “No trespassing” signs on your property. There will be plenty of “lookie-loos” who drive through your neighborhood to look at the destruction. Like rubber-neckers at the scene of an accident, they want a first-hand view and may take pictures. Some will be so bold as to drive up your driveway or walk across your property. Be prepared for this and respectfully ask them to leave. You don’t need that kind of emotional upset at this time.
26. Open a P.O. Box. The post office will let you pick up your mail at their center for a while, but at some point (quicker than you think) that will end. Put a message on your phone to tell people where they can send your mail, including cash donations.
27. Put a message on your phone asking callers to leave a detailed message and include an update on how you’re doing. Also explain you may not be able to call folks back and appreciate their understanding.
28. Keep track of all the people who donate money. Just stick their cards in your filing box. At some point you’ll be glad you kept them so you can thank people for their kindness.
29. If you have a well, be sure to get it tested to see if it’s been contaminated by the fire. If you drill a new well, make sure the drilling company caps off the old well. Register your new well with the State.
30. If you build a bigger house than the one you lost in the fire, you may need a bigger septic tank (unless you’re on City sewer). Typically, the size of the septic tank is driven by the number of bathrooms and bedrooms in the house.
31. Separate metal debris into a pile which you can then take to a metal recycling/collection site. You may end up making a few hundred dollars off the scrap metal. Be aware, trespassers may come on your property intending to do the same thing.
32. If you had burned trees on your property, you may hire someone to cut and remove them. If you do it yourself, be aware you’re going to get very dirty. Many trees will fall within 4-7 years. Be aware of the possibility trees could snap and fall without warning.
33. Don’t assume that all your burned pine trees will die. If they have some needles left up on top, they may survive. The U.S. Forest Service can come out and give you an assessment of which trees may or may not make it. You may want to wait a few years before asking them to do the evaluation.
34. If you had library books that burned, the library may want you to physically come to their branch to submit paperwork on the loss. You’d think you could do this over the phone, especially if you have a library near your neighborhood where the fire occurred.
35. After the property is cleared of debris, be on the lookout for nails that could embed themselves into your tires. Bulldozers will spread small bits of glass and metal across your property.
36. Go slowly with your purchases. For many of us, we were cautious not to bring too much back into our temporary or new homes right away. Maybe it’s a fear that it all could be taken away again. Or maybe it’s because we realize it’s all just “stuff” and people are more important. Either way, be choosy and avoid taking in too many donations from friends and family. You deserve to purchase exactly what you want, assuming your insurance policy will cover it.
Wildfire Survivors Tips: 1-4-22
- While you are overwhelmed right now, you WILL in time be able to move on. Have faith that things will get better, week by week. For a while you will be disoriented, angry and confused. There is no “How To” guide to help you figure out what to do next. You’ll have to take charge, collaborate with neighbors and take advantage of every service the County and organizations like the Red Cross, Samaritan’s Purse and Salvation Army will provide.
- You will soon be overwhelmed with paperwork. Get yourself a plastic filing tub where you can put hanging folders. Label them with categories like: Insurance Claim, Restoration (clearing the debris from your lot), Utilities, Temp Housing, Receipts, etc. This will help you keep track over the year(s) you’ll be working to file your claim and rebuild.
- Get a composition notebook and record everything you’re doing, day by day. Include phone numbers/emails for contractors, service providers, etc. I call this a “breadcrumbs book” because it helped me track what I had accomplished and what I had yet to do. Your mind is going to become a big, black hole. Your memory will not serve you well during this time, so rely on tools like this to support you.
- Get the contact information of your neighbors. Their phone numbers, email, etc. You will want to stay in touch, share information and give each other some moral support. Agree to give them a heads up if you learn of some service or contractor that they should work with or avoid like the plague.
- Find temporary housing pronto. There are hundreds of other families looking for an apartment to rent. Put out feelers with friends and family. Don’t put this off or you may find available housing is scarce.
- Before you hire a home builder, check references thoroughly. Talking to people who had their homes built by a contractor is the most reliable way to pick a good one. Sadly, a number of our wildfire survivors hired builders that then put them through another round of trauma and expense on top of what they’d already been through. Make sure your builder is a good communicator and understands the emotional rollercoaster you are on. You’re not just building a new house (which is stressful by itself), but you’re coping with the insurance company, getting paid, trying to put your household goods inventory together (this was worse than childbirth for me), etc.
- Document your mileage and expenses. In most cases, you are able to claim mileage to and from the building site from where you are staying temporarily. Fedex charges, copies, utility hook-up fees, rental costs, etc. may be eligible for reimbursement. I say “may be” because you’ll have to check with your insurance adjuster.
- “If not for the fire” was the phrase our adjuster repeated to me to help decide what was eligible for reimbursement and what was not. In other words, if not for the fire, would you have incurred this expense? You have to eat one way or the other, so meals may not qualify.
- Surprisingly, you will need to call your trash company and cancel service. I know, it seems crazy because the house is gone. Of course there would be no need for trash pickup. But it’s something you’ll have to do. I had to chase down the cable company because they needed to lay new cable from the road back to our house because it had melted. You may also need to do this. Be prepared to be on the phone for a while.
- Expect your tempers to be short. While you may think you’ve got all this handled, you’ve gone through a tremendously traumatic experience and that will take a toll on your emotions. Talk about this with your family so everyone knows ahead of time and can cut each other some slack. Don’t overlook the need for counseling. The County, schools, non-profit providers may all offer some kind of counseling.
- The dreaded inventory: My brother (who also lost his home in our 2013 wildfire) did not need to complete an inventory because his insurance company offered him a settlement. It was a percentage of his personal property coverage allowance. But mine did not, so I girded my loins and painstakingly put together a list of what we lost. I did it room by room from memory. I had a few photos I could refer to, but mostly it was memory. I claimed everything I knew we had before the fire, including spices and cotton balls. Pace yourself with this project. It’ll take some time.
- Take pictures throughout the process, including all the “treasures” you or others discover when you sift through the debris. There may not be a lot that’s salvageable, but the photos will come in handy while creating your inventory. Also, your insurance adjuster will take numerous photos of the site, so you also want photos of your own to document the damage.
- Your insurance adjuster is not your friend. They’re also not Santa Claus. They are professionals who are there to do a job and protect the interests of the insurance company. It will be tempting to think of them as a shoulder to cry on, but that would be a mistake. Just get down to business with them and ask lots of questions. Document what they say. Email is a great tool for this.
- Insurance adjusters are VERY busy. They have hundreds of claims they are working at the same time, so you may find you don’t get immediate responses when you email a question to them. I figured out along the way that our adjuster responded to me during a certain part of the month, so I saved the questions I could until then. For issues that were important, I labeled my email that way. Don’t overdo it though because you don’t want them to think you’re crying wolf.
- You will experience “decision fatigue.” This is especially true as you start to build your new home. As time allows, start to make a list of the things you want in your new home, including what kind of towel bars. I got to the point that I asked my builder if he could just pick them out for me. It can be overwhelming to make even these little decisions when you’re being bombarded by so much to do.
- Recovering from a wildfire is a part-time job — full-time in the weeks immediately following the fire. Your regular job may suffer a bit, so it’s good to let your boss know exactly what you’re juggling so they can be flexible with you.
- Don’t overbuild. It’s tempting when you have a good sized insurance policy to support you. Those who over-built from our wildfire faced increased insurance premiums (because the new house was bigger and/or worth more) and higher property taxes. In our case, developers bought up the property of those who were selling because they planned to move elsewhere or just couldn’t bear coming back to the same site. Then they sold that property at a higher price.
- Avoid taking donations from well-meaning friends. You don’t need “stuff” to worry about storing, transporting, and getting rid of if you don’t want it. If they ask what they can do for you, don’t be shy about asking for cash. You can always pick up a few chairs and a table once you’re settled in your temporary home. But you certainly don’t need a bunch of hand-me-down Tupperware. Your insurance company will allow you money early on to buy essentials. Our company sent me a check for $5000.00 immediately so we could get what we needed.
- You’ll hear people say, “This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” It’s oh so true. Set your expectations that none of this is going to go as quickly (or as smoothly) as you’d like. I don’t mean to discourage you, but it’s a multi-year process. Pace yourself and your family members.
As I think of more tips, I’ll add them to this article. Please feel free to share this information with other wildfire survivors. Blessings on you and your family. Know that you are not alone and you will get through this. For years to come you will speak of life events as “before the fire” or “after the fire.” This wildfire is a significant experience in your life and one that few others ever have to go through. In time, you may actually find a few good things that came out of it. Yes, believe it or not.
I hope these wildfire survivors tips are helpful!
Warmly, Laura Lollar, 2013 Black Forest, Colorado wildfire survivor