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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Hundreds of Marshall fire victims heard cleanup plans from Louisville, Boulder County officials

County and Louisville officials say victims of last month’s Marshall Fire in Boulder County should navigate cleanup and demolition efforts on their properties and in their neighborhoods before discussing the topic of rebuilding.

If they want to build again, many will have to start from scratch, Chad Root, design officer for Louisville, said Tuesday during an informative online call. For homes built in the 1980s or 90s only physical copies of the design were used and most of them were discarded after 180 days.

Root said victims can still ask city and county officials to see if there are design plans for their homes — the fire has destroyed 1,084 in the county, but officials have yet to set a single one. Not found, Root said.

He and Louisville principal planner Lisa Ritchie outlined some of the available details for cleanup, demolition and rebuilding during the call, which was attended by more than 230 people. Those looking to rebuild will also have to navigate new building codes, install fire suppression systems and additional water upgrades.

The pair also told victims that more information and resources would 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 over the phone expressed their gratitude for their work but despair with intricate details on the horizon.

“It doesn’t look like we have anyone to help us on this,” said a victim identified during the call as Lee. “We’re not experts on this.”

Others expressed concerns about their health and safety, the toxic waste left by the fire, issues of timing and whether they would be able to keep small pieces of their lives untouched by the fire.

Susan Nedel said that while her family has lost their home, a row of trees on their property is hardly to be touched. And when he asked if the federal officials in charge of the demolition would leave those trees untouched, Nedel received a non-reply.

“We’re pretty sure they’re fine,” Nedel said. “Renovated and matured trees will be a tremendous asset to our home and our neighborhood.”

Some cleanup is already underway, Root said, and more demolition will follow soon. Residents can handle the process themselves, taking on the responsibility of hiring a contractor and obtaining all necessary permits.

Or residents can join a county program managed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Ritchie said. That work includes foundation removal and soil testing.

“The county will hire employees who will go from neighborhood to neighborhood and do all this work on your behalf,” Richie said.

County officials have said that property owners will not be eligible for financial assistance from public programs handled by themselves. Removing the debris is expected to take months and cost millions.

Permits for large-scale demolition will not be issued for the total number of homes until February 1, Root said, and the work will happen on its own.

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Ritchie said most of the time it depends on how many people decide to take on the job themselves or join the county program.

Nedel said his family is considering tackling the demolition themselves to save their trees.

“We’ve heard that when FEMA comes in they take everything on your property,” she said.

Ritchie said he and others are working with federal officials to provide more information, so people like Nedel can make the best choice for their property.

Root said most cleanup procedures can be dangerous. The ash released from the fire is toxic and he urged caution for those who would be in the damaged areas.

According to state health officials, the burn area contains heavy metals and asbestos, which can cause lung damage or cancer.

And the demolition can be prolonged because many foundations of the total houses will have to be torn down.

“The heat is so intense that it actually breaks down the concrete, weakening the concrete,” he said.

Root estimated that 99% of completely burnt homes would have to demolish the foundations.

After demolition and debris removal, Root said properties should be surveyed to make sure property lines are accurate.

Only once that work, and much more, is done, can the rebuilding conversation begin.

Richie urged neighbors to talk to each other about which contractors and builders they plan to hire. Hiring the same employee for multiple neighborhood residents can speed up the process and perhaps cut costs.

Assistant City Engineer Cameron Foulkes said rebuilders would face more modern building codes. Some of those changes would mean more modern water systems, water meters being outside instead of basements, and the installation of fire extinguishing systems.

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, Boulder County Chief Building Officer Ron Flax told The Denver Post that county officials are also considering building code updates for renovators in unincorporated areas. He said the ignition-resistant roof, siding and gutter system could have made a difference as the Marshall fire spread.

“We know that some houses caught fire because embers went down the gutters and caught fire in the roof,” Flax said.

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