Direct fire and heat damage has been easy to detect from the Marshall fires. There are many more smoke-damaged structures that insurance companies know are damaged and dangerous to occupants. Some owners are returning to work and living in these structures, and many are questioning whether it is safe to do so. A new story, No Return: The Unseen Toll of the Marshall Fire’s ‘Standing Home’ Survivorssets the stage and explains some of the current situation:
Boulder County’s official tally of the fire’s home destruction is 1,084 homes destroyed and another 149 damaged. But that doesn̵7;t include smoke-damaged homes that look good on the outside, but may be too polluted to live in safely. “We don’t have an accurate count of the number of homes that sustained smoke damage,” said Bill Hayes, the county’s air quality coordinator. “but there are between 13,000 and 14,000 homes in the burning area that were not destroyed.” The fire area spans approximately 10 square kilometers. The smoke-damaged area is close to 15 square kilometers. “I think it’s safe to say that a large majority of these [homes] suffered a degree of smoke damage ranging from mild to severe.
But the Marshall Fire has also taken a less visible, but also painful, toll on another group of residents.
Across the burn area, poisons from burned homes, cars and vegetation settled in still-standing homes, including Schrader’s and others. These survivors with homes still standing broaden our understanding of the Marshall Fire’s scope of loss and displacement. Their stories highlight gaps in insurance coverage and local recovery and rebuilding processes. And they offer lessons for other communities as climate change increases the frequency of urban wildfires.
Amy Bach and the staff at United Policyholders have been very active in providing information to policyholder victims of the Marshall Fire. The article noted:
Amy Bach, executive director of United Policyholders, a nonprofit information resource for insurance customers, agreed: “There is not a complete, verified number of standing homes that are affected,” she said, but she believes it is significant. She estimates that more than 600 homeless survivors have come together in informal groups to share information.
A family insured by State Farm had their plight noted:
They are now in limbo with their insurer State Farm. Giant garbage bags and boxes of clothes, toys and family photos sit in the corners of the house gathering dust. So does the non-toxic furniture they bought before the fire, now contaminated by smoke and particles. They wanted State Farm to replace everything but the company refused. Justin and Jasmine said the company State Farm hired to assess the interior of their home, Ninyo and Moore Engineering, determined that all of their possessions could be cleaned. The Schraders still hope to negotiate.
State Farm sent them a letter explaining that its policy did not cover inspections to determine whether the smoke damage made the property unsafe. I don’t agree with that, but the story has the actual letter from a State Farm adjuster. While State Farm may not have to pay for safety inspections for a home that has not suffered any damage, if the structure has damage and one needs to inspect for hazardous smoke residue to determine how to clean and if the cleanup was successful, that inspection is part of the cost of the smoke damage and its remedy.
Insurance companies and property adjusters are well aware that smoke damaged homes can be unsafe for their clients. The Marshal Fire has thousands of these structures:
The Marshall Fire was not just a wildfire. It has been classified as a wildland-urban interface (WUI), meaning it burned not only the brush, grass and trees of an outdoor fire, but also houses, cars and everyday material things of human life.
For Marshall Fire survivors, the WUI fire classification is important in understanding what toxins they may have been exposed to. When houses and other buildings caught fire, so did everything inside them: insulation, paint, sealants, electronics, kitchen appliances, batteries, fiberglass, nylon carpeting, flame retardant coating, and more. All of this turned into ash, soot, carbon and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include toxic chemicals such as benzene and formaldehyde. These particles and gases then traveled downwind with wind gusts up to 115 miles per hour that spread the fire that day. Homes lucky enough to be untouched by the flames still had smoke and particles seeping into their vents and chimneys and into cracks and pores in building materials.
One of the biggest problems is that standards for smoke remediation vary, and so does the quality of remediation:
Hayes, the county’s quality coordinator, said he reviewed air quality data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on standing homes in the months following the Marshall fire and saw a wide range of results after the cleanups came through. In some cases, he said, cleaning led to the discovery of higher concentrations of VOCs.
“We had a number of cleaning companies come in and do different cleaning techniques in the homes, and what we could see was that some of them actually made the conditions worse,” he said. “Some remediation techniques were not effective at all.”
Cleaning companies generally follow protocols established by the Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), a non-profit trade body for cleaning products. However, the IICRC does not have published standards for fire smoke cleanup. These standards are under development. In the absence of a national guideline, the standard should be no presence of char or particulate matter from wildfires, Weecycle said.
This lack of standards has exacerbated disputes and delays many homeowners face when filing insurance claims, according to Bach of United Policyholders.
“There is not enough consensus among industrial hygienists, restoration professionals and property owners on cleaning methods, testing and air quality standards,” Bach said. Homeowners feel the process is arbitrary and up to individual adjusters.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that some insurance companies want to fix less and pay less, while policyholders’ customers want reassurance that their homes are safe to return to, which will cost more. I noted this in Marshall Wildfire policyholders continue to experience difficulty with insurance companies evaluating full extent of smoke, ash and soot damage. Scientists are studying the effects of smoke from the Marshall Fire:
De Gouw, a CU Boulder chemist, is leading a research project focused on the Marshall Fire’s smoke effects. His team of researchers deployed mass spectrometers (instruments that measure molecules in the air) in standing homes within two to three weeks of the fire. De Gouw’s early samples showed that smoke-filled homes contained harmful volatile organic compounds such as benzene, a known carcinogen, at twice the level of a home.
“Right after the fire, these compounds improved more in the homes than you would typically see,” he said. “But three, four weeks later it had come down to more normal levels.”
The fact that these compounds lingered indoors weeks after the fire surprised de Gouw. “I would have guessed that a lot of the components would have disappeared in a day or so,” he said. “We saw them stay for a month and so it really changes our understanding of how pollutants interact with our homes.”
The bottom line is that the Marshall Fire has many more damaged homes because the smoke and debris are toxic. The insurance industry knows this from past experience. Many insurers appear to be far more concerned with their financial bottom line, and many policyholders question the sincerity of the empathy found in denial letters because, in the moment of truth, some insurers pay lip service to their customers’ concerns rather than mitigate them. the kind to pay for homes that are truly safe to live in.
Three things cannot be hidden for long: the sun, the moon and the truth.