Colorado fire recovery takes longer due to COVID

Rex and Barba Hickman’s 23-year-old home near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains has been reduced to a blackened heap by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.

Before the fire, which ravaged nearly 1,100 homes, the Hickmans often hung out with neighbors on their patio, sharing funny stories over a glass of wine. But that probably won’t happen again for years – an even longer delay by the pandemic.

“That’s part of the reason it hurts,” Barba Hickman, 65, said earlier this week as he sifted through the rubble and wondered how long it might take for the neighbors to benefit again spontaneous meetings.

Reconstruction is never easy or quick. Homeowners must deal with insurers, land surveyors, architects and more. But in Colorado and other states hit by natural disasters this year, the pandemic has added additional uncertainty and created more hurdles. Shortages of labor and raw materials will make reconstruction slower and more expensive.

“It’s going to take forever,” said Kelley Moye, spokesperson for the Colorado Association of Realtors.


Even without a pandemic, it took almost seven years to completely rebuild after a fire in 2012 that destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado Springs, and home builders are still finishing work after a 2017 fire in Santa Rosa, Calif. .

The stress of recent Colorado wildfire victims is compounded by an extremely tight housing market. With few homes for sale or rent, families are struggling to find temporary shelter.

“It’s a big chunk of the population who all need the same things. And they all need them right now,” Moye said. “They can’t get away for half an hour because the kids have to stay in their school district.”

Thousands of American families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by extreme weather conditions last year, from tornadoes in the Midwest and Kentucky to the impact of Hurricane Ida on the Gulf Coast and New Jersey, also face the intimidating road that awaits the Coloradans affected by the forest fires.

Builders everywhere are waiting longer than usual to line up carpenters, electricians and plumbers, and these specialists themselves are being supported while they wait for parts.

Barba Hickman inspects the rubble of his burnt down home in Louisville, Colorado, Jan. 2, 2022 (AP Photo / Thomas Peipert, File)

From start to finish, building a 2,500 square foot home in Denver would normally take four to five months. Now that same project typically takes eight to 10 months, said John Covert, director of Zonda Advisory, a Denver-based residential construction market research firm. The local increase in demand after a disaster only exacerbates the problem.

President Biden was scheduled to visit the area outside Denver on Friday where wildfires set homes ablaze on December 30, causing damage estimated at $ 513 million.

In addition to delaying reconstruction, the pandemic is also driving up costs. Contractors are hard to find amid an increase in renovations, and lumber and steel supplies are stranded by problems in the supply chain, said Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders.

Lumber prices have fallen from around $ 350 per 1,000 board feet before the pandemic to nearly $ 1,500 last year, Dietz said. This can mean additional costs of $ 30,000 to $ 40,000 for a typical home, he said.

Colorado cities hardest hit by last week’s wildfires, Louisville and Superior, lie in a predominantly wealthy area between Denver and the college town of Boulder. Median home prices there are more than double the national average, which stood at $ 416,900 in November, down from $ 321,500 a year earlier.

Rising house prices can add an additional burden to families who have lost their homes to a forest fire.

“The costs are likely to exceed the insured value of many destroyed structures,” said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America.


The Hickmans’ adjuster said their policy would not cover rebuilding their home exactly as they did. With a gas fireplace and wood stove inside and a front patio that had become a gathering place for neighbors, the house was valued at over a million dollars.

“The pandemic and the supply chains have increased costs, and the insurance company doesn’t seem to care,” Barba Hickman said.

Homes burn as a wildfire ravages a development near Rock Creek Village on December 30, 2021, near Broomfield, Colo. (AP Photo / David Zalubowski, File)

Homes burn as a wildfire ravages a development near Rock Creek Village on December 30, 2021, near Broomfield, Colo. (AP Photo / David Zalubowski, File)

The people of Colorado are not alone in facing the challenges of the pandemic era that have exacerbated the already stressful process of recovering from a natural disaster.

In December, a 200 mile line of tornadoes struck Kentucky, decimating some small rural towns, displacing hundreds and killing dozens.

Cole Claybourn of Bowling Green has found a contractor to fix the torn off corner of his house and damaged roof, and is hoping work will begin next week, a month after the disaster. “If it had only happened in one part of the county it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it took out quite a large part of the city,” he said.

It’s too early for Claybourn, 32, to have supply chain headaches, but he won’t be surprised if that’s a problem. “I’m a high school teacher and we haven’t been able to get toner in our building for months,” he said.

A woman reacts when she sees the remains of her mother's home destroyed by the Marshall Wildfire in Louisville, Colo. On December 31, 2021. (AP Photo / Jack Dempsey, File)

A woman reacts when she sees the remains of her mother’s home destroyed by the Marshall Wildfire in Louisville, Colo. On December 31, 2021. (AP Photo / Jack Dempsey, File)

Before Hurricane Ida destroyed the Gulf Coast – then destroyed New Jersey – in late summer, construction contractors were already grappling with severe labor shortages and depleted supply chains. The damage inflicted by Ida amplified these constraints.

Jeff Okrepkie, whose home burned down in the Santa Rosa fire in 2017, said families who begin to rebuild will benefit by working together, sharing information and being extremely patient. “There is so much to building a house from scratch and most of us have no experience in this area,” said Okrepkie, who moved into his new home in early 2020.

The challenge for builders comes at a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty. The US economy has rebounded at an unexpected speed after a brief but painful recession in the spring of 2020, catching many companies by surprise and forcing them to scramble to find supplies and recall workers they had put on leave for the year. last.

But it is not known how long the reduction in supply and labor will last. Omicron and other COVID-19 variants could cause more Americans to stay at home as a health precaution. This could slow economic growth, but also slow inflation and alleviate labor and material shortages.

Dietz, the economist, believes building material shortages will ease before the labor shortage, especially in fast-growing regions like the mountain states and the southern United States.

For now, the Hickmans find some solace in being retired and having more time than many others to devote to rebuilding. They’ve spent the last week focusing on finding accommodation to rent and are even considering relocating to Denver, nearly 20 miles to the southeast.


With everything she’s learned over the past week, Barba Hickman urges her adult children to review their own insurance policies because “the time to discuss this is before your house burns down.”

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