Colorado Fire Survivors Latest U.S. Disaster Victims to Face Rebuilding During Pandemic

Coloradans who lost their homes in the massive wildfire that ripped through several Denver-area towns and suburbs last week will have to deal with the delays and supply shortages already plaguing many other victims of natural disasters across the United States.

The fire, which started December 30, destroyed almost 1,000 homes, hitting the towns of Superior and Louisville the hardest. Currently, the median home value for the area is $416,900, up almost $100,000 since last year.

Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America, said rising real estate costs will likely "exceed the insured value of many destroyed structures."

In addition, builders across the nation are waiting longer for supplies that have gone up in price. John Covert, principal at homebuilding market research firm Zonda Advisory, said construction of a 2,500-square-foot Denver home used to take four to five months, but now takes eight to 10.

Even before the pandemic, rebuilding took a long time. It took almost seven years to finish rebuilding after a 2012 fire in Colorado Springs. A pandemic-induced worker shortage and supply chain delays will make the wait take even longer, experts worry.

Kelley Moye, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Association of Realtors, said "it's going to take forever."

"It's a huge chunk of the population who all need the same thing. And they all need it right now," she said. "They can't go half an hour away because the kids need to stay in their school district."

Louisville, Colorado, fire
Over 1,000 homes were reported destroyed in a Colorado wildfire, making it the most destructive fire in the state's history. Above, Denny Ferrera looks into the remains of his home in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 2 in Louisville, Colorado. Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

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

Before the blaze, the Hickmans would often hang out with neighbors on their patio, sharing funny stories over a glass of wine. But that isn't likely to happen again for years—a delay made even longer by the pandemic.

"That's part of the reason it hurts," Barba Hickman, 65, said earlier this week while sifting through the rubble and coming to grips with how long it might take for neighbors to once again enjoy spontaneous get-togethers.

Rebuilding 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 injected extra uncertainty and created more obstacles.

The daunting road ahead for Coloradans affected by wildfire is also being faced by thousands of American families whose homes were damaged or destroyed by extreme weather last year, from tornadoes in the Midwest and Kentucky to Hurricane Ida's impact in the Gulf Coast and New Jersey.

Builders everywhere are waiting longer than usual to line up carpenters, electricians and plumbers, and these specialists are themselves getting backed up waiting for parts.

In addition to causing delays in rebuilding, the pandemic is also driving up costs. Contractors are tough to come by amid a surge in remodeling, and supplies of lumber and steel are being held up by supply-chain snags, said Robert Dietz, chief economist for the National Association of Home Builders.

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

Rising real-estate prices can add a further burden for families that lost their homes to wildfire.

The Hickmans' insurance claim adjustor said their policy is not going to cover a rebuild of their home exactly the way they had it. With a gas fireplace and wood-burning stove inside, and a front patio that had become a gathering spot for neighbors, the home was valued at more than $1 million.

"The pandemic and the supply chains have increased the cost, and the insurance company does not seem to care about that," Barba Hickman said.

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

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

Cole Claybourn of Bowling Green has found a contractor to repair the chunk torn out of the corner of his house and the damaged roof, and hopes the work will start next week, a month after the disaster. "If this had just happened in just one part of the county it wouldn't be a big deal, but this took out a pretty big swath of the city," he said.

It's too early for Claybourn, 32, to have supply-chain headaches, but he won't be surprised if it's a problem. "I'm a high school teacher and we couldn't get toner in our building for months," he said.

Before Hurricane Ida ripped through the Gulf Coast—and then took its destruction to New Jersey—in late summer, building contractors were already grappling with severe shortages of workers and depleted supply chains. The damage inflicted by Ida magnified those constraints.

The challenge for builders is occurring at a time of unprecedented economic uncertainty. The U.S. economy bounced back with unexpected speed from a brief but painful recession in the spring of 2020, catching many businesses by surprise and forcing them to scramble to find supplies and to recall workers they'd furloughed last year.

But it's unclear how long the supply and labor squeeze will last. Omicron and other COVID-19 variants could lead more Americans to stay home as a health precaution. That could put a dent in economic growth—but also possibly cool off inflation and ease shortages of workers and materials.

Dietz, the economist, believes shortages of building materials will ease before the labor crunch does, especially in fast-growing regions like the mountain states and the U.S. South.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Marshall Fire, Colorado, Joe Biden, Surveying Damage
In this aerial view, burned homes sit in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 4, 2022, in Louisville, Colorado. Almost 1,100 buildings, a majority of them homes, were destroyed, resulting in an estimated $513 million in damages. Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images