Victims of the Marshall fire in Boulder County last month must navigate cleanup and demolition efforts for their properties and throughout their neighborhoods before broaching the topic of rebuilding, county and Louisville officials say.
If they do want to build again, many will likely have to start from scratch, Chad Root, building design official for Louisville, said during an informational online call Tuesday. Only physical copies of designs were used for homes built in the 1980s or 90s and most of those were discarded after 180 days.
Victims can still ask city and county officials to see if design plans for their homes – the fire destroyed 1,084 in the county – remain, but officials have not yet been able to find a single set, Root said.
He and Lisa Ritchie, Louisville’s principal planner, outlined the few available details for cleanup, demolition and rebuilding during the call, attended by more than 230 people. Those looking to rebuild must also navigate newer building codes, install fire suppression systems and additional water upgrades.
The pair also told victims more information and resources will become available in the coming weeks, asking for patience as city and county officials continue to assess the damage and plan a recovery strategy.
Victims on the phone expressed gratitude for their work but frustration with the complicated details on the horizon.
“It doesn’t feel like we have anyone to help us on this,” one victim, identified during the call as Lee, said. “We’re not experts on this.”
Others expressed concerns about their health and safety amid the toxic waste left behind by the fire, timing issues and whether they’d be able to hold on to small bits of their life left untouched by the fire.
Susan Nedell said while her family lost their home, a row of trees on their property remain hardly touched. And when she asked whether federal officials in charge of demolition would leave those trees untouched, Nedell received noncommittal answers.
“We’re pretty sure they’re fine,” Nedell said. “Rebuilding and having mature trees would be a tremendous asset to our home and our neighborhood.”
Some cleanup is already underway, Root said, and more demolition will soon follow. Residents can handle the process themselves, taking responsibility for hiring a contractor and acquiring all the necessary permits.
Or residents can opt into a county program, managed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ritchie said. That work includes foundation removal and soil testing.
“The county would hire crews that would go neighborhood by neighborhood and do all this work on your behalf,” Ritchie said.
Property owners handling the work themselves won’t be eligible for financial aid from public programs, county officials have said. Debris removal is expected to take months and cost millions.
Permits won’t be issued for large-scale demolition for totaled homes until Feb. 1, Root said, and the work itself will follow.
Much of the timeline depends on how many people decide to handle the work themselves or join the county program, Ritchie said.
Nedell said her family is considering handling the demolition themselves in order to save their trees.
“We heard when FEMA comes in they take everything on your property,” she said.
Ritchie said she and others are working with federal officials to provide more information, so people like Nedell can make the best choice for their property.
Much of the cleanup process can be dangerous, Root added. Ash left behind by the fire is toxic and he urged caution for those who will be in the damaged areas.
The burn area contains heavy metals and asbestos, which can cause lung damage or cancer, according to state health officials.
And demolition could be prolonged because many of the foundations of totaled homes will have to be torn out.
“The heat is so intense that it actually spalls the concrete, weakens the concrete,” he said.
Root estimated that 99% of foundations for completely burned homes will have to be torn out.
Following demolition and debris removal, Root said properties must be surveyed to ensure property lines are accurate.
Only once that work, and more, is done can the conversation of rebuilding begin.
Ritchie urged neighbors to speak with each other about which contractors and builders they plan to hire. Multiple neighborhood residents hiring the same workers could speed up the process and maybe cut costs.
Those rebuilding will face more modern building codes, Assistant City Engineer Cameron Fowlkes said. Some of those changes will mean more modern water systems, water meters to be outside rather than in basements and the installation of a fire suppression system.
Ritchie noted that Louisville enacted a new code last year requiring all new buildings to meet net-zero efficiency standards. Louisville City Councilman Kyle Brown said the council is considering whether to change that new code requirement.
Similarly, Ron Flax, chief building official for Boulder County, told The Denver Post that county officials are also considering building code updates for those rebuilding in unincorporated areas. Ignition-resistant roofing, siding and gutter systems could have made a difference as the Marshall fire spread, he said.
“We know some houses caught on fire because embers landed in the gutter and caught the roof on fire,” Flax said.
Other residents asked Root and Ritchie for a more specific timeline for cleanup and demolition. Coal Creek Ranch resident David Leevan said his insurance company is urging him to move back into his home quickly but expressed concern for his family’s health should they live in the area with so much cleanup going on.
Ritchie said her team is working with local, state and federal officials to determine a more precise sequence of events. More information will be available online at louisvilleco.gov/marshallfire and residents can submit more questions to [email protected] or [email protected]
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