Marshall fire victims battling insurance companies have options

More than six weeks after the costliest fire in Colorado history, many victims of the Marshall Fire face the next uphill battle: insurance recovery.

It is well established that many residents are underinsured or not insured at all. This comes with its own challenges, largely addressed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But even those who are fully insured face recovery challenges, especially those whose homes are damaged from smoke and ash rather than total loss.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

The best way to describe this type of damage is this: Imagine standing directly in the smoke line a few feet from a campfire. The heavy smoke and ash probably makes you cough and move you to another location.

Now imagine if that campfire grew to the size of 6,200 acres, continuing to burn overnight just 200 feet from your home. It was the plume of toxic smoke and debris that seeped into homes adjacent to the burned areas.

Here is a short list of common cleanings required to restore a property: replacing attic insulation, cleaning ducts, scrubbing floors, walls and ceilings, repainting, replacing carpet, replacing blinds, cleaning refrigerator, dryer vent cleaning, smoke detector replacement, and extended industrial-grade HEPA filtration, to name a few.

Then there is the cleaning of everything inside.

Almost everything belonging to the house should be removed and specially cleaned to remove smoke and toxic ash – assuming they don’t go straight to the trash.

The cost of restoring a home, as opposed to rebuilding it, is still exceptionally high, even though it is often not included in initial disaster totals.

Personal property claims for household items easily run into several thousand dollars for a single person, and homeowner claims can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars. This is in addition to the thousands of dollars incurred by moving for months. No wonder insurance companies are fighting not to pay out — it was already the costliest wildfire in the state at over half a billion dollars, and now it’s hundreds of thousands more.

Anyone who’s ever fought with an insurance company knows what I’m talking about. The endless back-and-forth, the delaying tactics and the nickel and minus every little thing. There’s a reason insurance companies have a bad reputation, and they should probably be treated more like a public service like utilities – although that’s a whole other conversation.

The important thing is that victims struggling with insurance companies have an asset they may not know about: they can report their complaints to the state for help.

The Department of Regulatory Affairs, or DORA for short, has a Insurance Division who is available to provide resources on how to handle your insurance claim. You can ask questions, read prepared packets on Colorado insurance laws and regulations, or schedule a consultative appointment. More importantly, if necessary, you can file a lawsuit against your agent or insurance company if they don’t honor the end of the contract you paid.

READ: Colorado Sun Opinion Columnists.

If you choose to file, as I did recently, learn from my mistakes: First, don’t start your claim late at night unless you’re prepared to stay awake for at least two more hours. Second, have all documents to support your complaint before to start. Third, prepare to write two 2,000-word statements. The first statement is a summary of the complaint(s) you have. The second is a summary of what you expect from a reasonable resolution. Be concise and precise.

Most importantly, know your policy and document everything; it’s never too late to start. Obtain a copy of your disclosure page and request a copy of company-specific policies. Know exactly what your policy covers for additional living expenses, or “ALE” in the insurance world, and property damage. Do not communicate with adjusters and representatives by telephone. Get all their instructions and requests, delays or denials in writing.

Insurance recovery is quick and expensive, but you’re not alone. The state may be able to provide assistance. And, if you need to file a formal complaint, feel free to do so.

Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer, and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She is an avid climber and was a 2020 candidate for US Senate from Colorado.

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Kristan F. Talley