How Should Wildfire Smoke Damage Be Measured?

How Should Wildfire Smoke Damage Be Measured?

Homes that survive wildfire flames but that are still affected by smoke, soot and ash is a growing issue for homeowners and insurers, as is the question of how to best remediate the problem

House in flames night sky.

A home burns after a fast moving wildfire swept through the area in the Centennial Heights neighborhood of Louisville, Colorado on December 30, 2021.

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

CLIMATEWIRE | Colorado’s 2021 Marshall Fire tore through Boulder County and destroyed more than 1,000 homes — cementing its place as one of the worst disasters in state history.

What got less attention was the fate of hundreds of other properties in the surrounding area.

The homes were still standing, but they were contaminated by smoke, soot and ash. The impurities displaced some families for months — and others for years.

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That’s due in part to ongoing disputes between Colorado homeowners and their insurance companies over how much damage the homes sustained — and what it would take to ensure they are safe to live in.

A bill moving through the Colorado Legislature aims to address that situation. It would ask the Colorado Division of Insurance to study existing best practices for remediation and cleaning post-wildfire and make recommendations for potential standards.

That’s critical, proponents say, because no such standards exist at the state or federal levels, leaving wildfire victims in Colorado and beyond to the whims of insurers.

“To this day, there remain many homes that are uninhabitable because of smoke and ash damage,” said bill co-author Rep. Kyle Brown, a Democrat who represents the city of Louisville in Boulder County.

“That’s what this study is about,” Brown added. “It’s about making sure that we determine what are the right health and safety standards for homes. And then, what does the insurance coverage for those standards really look like.”

For many families who suffered so-called partial losses during the Marshall Fire, Brown said, their insurers would send out a remediation company to clean the home, before giving residents the green light to move back in.

But oftentimes, when homeowners returned after the cleaning, their homes, furniture and carpeting still showed signs of contamination. In some cases, that triggered health issues such as headaches and respiratory problems, which led some families to move back out.

Those kind of situations have led to lengthy battles between homeowners and insurance companies over contamination testing, remediation and who should foot the bill.

The insurance industry too sees a need for better guidelines when dealing with smoke damage.

“It does come into play after all of these fires, but particularly in these urban fires, where homes are close together, so they’re more affected,” said Carole Walker, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “It’s a growing issue as we see more urban fires.”

“The frustration is a lack of standards,” Walker added. “There’s the challenge for the insurance company, and for that homeowner getting caught in the middle, where you have [a contractor] saying this home is uninhabitable or a total loss, where really there has been smoke damage, but it is repairable.”

Walker said her organization, which represents property and casualty insurers in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming, does not have a specific position on the legislation but is monitoring the bill, which passed the state House of Representatives last week. The bill still needs to be approved by the full Senate before reaching Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D).

Colorado policymakers aren’t the only ones focusing on the issue.

The Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification — a group that establishes standards, credentials and certifications for issues ranging from mold remediation to crime scene cleanup — is in the final stages of developing its own standard related to home remediation post-wildfire.

Brown said the IICRC standards eventually could be incorporated into a Colorado standard.

“There just aren’t a lot of standards out there. So from my understanding IICRC would be some of the best [guidance] we might be able to find,” Brown said.

If the bill becomes law, he added, the state Department of Insurance “would need to go and evaluate those standards and anything else that might be available and whether or not and how we would incorporate that into insurance in Colorado.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.

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