Colorado’s Historic Wildfire Season Could Cost ‘Hundreds of Millions’

By | July 2, 2012

Insured losses from two wildfires in what’s shaping up to be a historic wildfire season for Colorado may be into the “hundreds of millions of dollars,” an insurance industry association executive said on Monday.

The Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, which started on June 23 and is now 55 percent contained, is the most destructive in Colorado history with 346 homes lost. The High Park Fire, which raged throughout much of June, is 100 percent contained, though it continues to smolder. It’s estimated 259 homes were lost in that fire, which consumed 87,284 acres, making it the second largest in state history and its most destructive until the Waldo Canyon fire came along. Battling the High Park Fire cost an estimated $38 million.

Considering the more than 600 homes lost so far, partially burned homes, those with minor to major smoke damage, additional living expenses for displaced residents, “we’re talking into the hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

Thunderstorms moved in over the weekend and increased relative humidity and provided cloud cover that assisted firefighting efforts on the Waldo Canyon Fire, while several evacuees were allowed to return to their homes, some were taken into affected areas by bus. It’s estimated roughly 10,000 people remain on evacuation status.

George Hayward III, a public relations professional whose family lives in the Mountain Shadows community in Colorado Springs, returned to his home to look at the damage on Sunday.

“Our evacuation was simply lifted at 8 p.m. last night,” Hayward said on Monday. “Our subsection of Mountain Shadows was spared, even though the fire got to within half-a-mile south of my house. People whose houses were saved within the burn zones were the ones let back in temporarily for damage assessment and getting things. And they’re still on evacuation. From what I hear from local government friends, (Colorado Springs Fire Department) fought heroically to keep the fire from moving any further north than it did. They truly saved our homes.”

A few days after the fire stared – its cause is still unknown – the Waldo Canyon Fire more than doubled in size, and at one point forced the evacuation of 32,000 residents. On June 29 President Barack Obama toured the area and declared a disaster.

“In terms of the number of homes lost it is our most destructive wildfire in state history,” Walker said. “This went from a forest fire to the canyons to a city fire. It’s that urban wildfire catastrophe that we all fear.”

Most of the residences affected are single-family homes, many in more affluent neighborhoods.

“I’ve driven though the neighborhoods with the adjusters and they are nice homes in beautiful neighborhoods,” Walker said. “This adds to the historic wildfire season we’ve been having.”

Affected areas were a mix of older and new homes, with many in more affluent neighborhoods valued well over $300,000 and up.

“We have battalions of catastrophe adjusters out here,” she said. “There are city blocks that are gone. It does look more like what you’d see when a tornado hit a neighborhood. Here in Colorado Springs it’s leveled city blocks.”

Aside from total losses, many homes in both fires experienced a great deal of smoke damage, and there are homes that may be declared total losses when there is severe smoke damage, Walker noted.

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