Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

WALDO CANYON FIRE: Hidden damages plague Mountain Shadow residents

RYAN MAYE HANDY Updated: November 16, 2012 at 12:00 am

At first glance, Dale and Diana Hendershot’s home at 2610 Tamora Way emerged unscathed from the Waldo Canyon fire. But months later they are battling less visible enemies: lingering soot particles and damages from searing heat.

Their home was one of more than 450 in Mountain Shadows to survive the June 26 firestorm. It withstood the flames and heat, but was filled with corrosive ash particles and smoke that infiltrated furnaces, attics and insulation. Nearly all the surviving homes in Mountain Shadows were exposed to variant degrees of smoke and heat during the fire, damage that industrial hygenists say stays in a home for months, corroding electronics and even causing respiratory problems. Not only do homeowners have to get rid of it, but they want their insurance companies to pay for it — two tasks that are proving to be challenging.

The Hendershots are among a growing group of Mountain Shadows residents whose homes survived the blaze, but who nevertheless do not feel spared, and whose battles with insurance do not stop with reimbursements for charred landscaping.

“We’re the forgotten ones,” Dale Hendershot said in early November. “There’s hundreds of me out there.”

Invasion of soot

Industrial hygienist Judith Sawitsky, with Weecycle Environmental Consulting, Inc., has inspected 35 homes in Mountain Shadows for damage from soot and ash particulate. If the particles are severely or even slightly acidic, as in the Hendershots’ case, they can slowly damage everything they’ve touched, she said.

“This is a real issue for people to be living in houses impacted by soot,” Sawitsky said.

A film of soot still covers the Hendershots’ white window sills; their stucco is cracking and roof tiles have loosened, all due to the extreme heat from the burning home next door, the Hendershots believe. To them, the damage is real — it confines them to using only the basement rooms of the home. But their insurance company, Farmers, will not acknowledge the damage, they say.

An outlier group of residents whose homes survived are battling with insurance companies to get their claims of particulate damage recognized. The Hendershot’s public adjustor, Troy Payne, says that they are among his 10 clients experiencing the same problem — nearly invisible but pervasive soot damage.

Homeowners are in various stages of the insurance process. Some, Payne says, haven’t filed complaints to state agencies. Others received insurance settlements that they may contest, but have yet do so. An insurance company’s definition of a settled claim does not necessarily take into the account the feelings of the homeowner. The Hendershots, for instance, had a settled claim until they sought additional reimbursement.

Still others are waiting for the light at the end of the insurance tunnel.

Like the Hendershots, Annette Roberts, whose family lives in the nearby Peregrine neighborhood, has confined their living to the house’s main floors, to avoid the contaminated rooms upstairs.

On Ashton Park Place, Ron Huberkorn and Mary Ann Collins, whose homes survived, are grappling with insurance companies over roof and window damage. A portion of Huberkorn’s roof caught fire, and he has yet to get his insurance company, California Casualty, to pay for it, he claims. Collins and her husband had just paid for new windows for their entire home — but the fire warped them and some are too misshapen to close, Collins said. The Collinses, too, are going back and forth with their insurance company, American Family, over reimbursement, they said.

These people said they filed complaints to the Colorado Division of Regulatory Agencies’ (DORA) Division of Insurance. Farmers Insurance, of which both the Hendershots and the Roberts are clients, has received eight notices of complaints filed in connection to the Waldo Canyon fire, said Farmers spokeswoman Erin Freeman. Records obtained by The Gazette show that three of those complaints were from homeowners whose homes survived, but who are now wading through the aftermath of getting their homes, and lives, back together.

Hidden damages

The Hendershots, like other families, saved pictures on their cell phones of the fire as it ran over the east ridge of Queens Canyon on June 26 and started to make its way towards Mountain Shadows.

The Hendershots were sure their house wouldn’t survive. But when they returned to their neighborhood, all but four homes were still there. The house next door, to the west, was in ruins. The Hendershots back deck was badly burned, and all of the scrub oak and trees in a small ravine behind their house were scorched. Small black flecks speckled, and still cover, their garage door and the railing of their deck — marks from hot flying embers.

The inside of the home was a different story. Houses breathe, and when the air outside the home is hotter than the air inside, what’s outside comes rushing in, according to Sawitsky. Inside, the Hendershots’ house smelled like smoke. Grey film covered everything; even after a thorough cleaning, they could wipe soot from the walls. Dale, who has asthma, had trouble breathing in sections of the house, where he works and spends most of his days. They haven’t used their upstairs rooms in months.

Outside, on the west-facing wall of the home, the stucco has cracked. Dale Hendershot and Payne, the adjustor who is CEO of Loss Analytics, believe that the heat from the house next door compromised the wall construction, which was not designed to withstand such extreme temperatures.

The same goes for the felt in the Hendershot’s roof and their windows. The Hendershots have letters from both the Pella Corporation and Andersen Windows stating that windows lose warranty when temperatures rise above 160 degrees Fahrenheit. The Hendershots haven’t been able to get exact temperatures of the fire, but firefighters told them that burning homes likely exceeded 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sawitsky’s tests of the home show that the particulates’ pH level, which measures degrees of acidity or alkalinity, is slightly above seven — measurements should always be at seven, or neutral.

“On a scale of one to 10, it’s not the worst one we’ve seen, but it does need some attention,” said Sawitsky.

The intense cleaning the Hendershots and others did as soon as they moved back in likely did little to improve the situation, Sawitsky said.

“People were cleaning the day after, but things hadn’t settle yet. It looks good on the surface. But anything that’s in the duct work will be re-circulated through the house,” she added.

When the cold weather hit and the Hendershots turned their furnace on they noticed that Dale’s asthma worsened. In the coming months, as the particulates seep out of their insulation and attic, things could go downhill.

“The garage and exterior vents, also up in the attic, those particulates will eventually move into their air,” Sawitsky said. “It’s the pressure differential, that’s just your house breathing. There are particulates that will work their ways out.”

In more severe cases, where home pH levels measure around nine, the particulates will corrode everything they touch — insulation, television sets and other electronics, for example. Sawitsky encountered a handful of these in Mountain Shadows.

“If you have a house fire next to you, you should have residual soot and ash impacting you,” she explained. If she were to plot all the houses with high pH readings, Sawitsky bets she would see a pattern: Homes close to conflagrations or flames would be worse.

“If the pH is extremely high we recommend that they get rid of the appliances,” she said. “In the attic we want all the insulation gone.”

Insurance struggles

Farmers Insurance handled 1,083 claims in the Waldo Canyon fire. Of those the Hendershots are one of two families still in a tug-of-war with the company over settlements, according to Freeman, the spokeswoman.

According to Farmers, the Hendershots’ initial claim involved only the damage that was immediately obvious to them — their burned deck and charred landscaping.

“We were too stupid in the beginning to realize the kind of damage,” their home had, said Dale Hendershot.

After living in their home, and being unable to rid white surfaces of soot and feeling the ash in their lungs, the Hendershots wanted their home professionally cleaned. Farmers refused to clean it until it was professionally inspected, the Hendershots say, and agreed to foot the bill for Sawitsky’s inspection. Sawitsky says she has yet to be paid.

Meanwhile, the Hendershots kept discovering other damages and reported them to the insurance company. One was medical — Dale, who works from home, ends everyday with a raspy voice worsened he thinks by the particulate floating in the air. His doctor, Kristine E. Hembre, wrote a letter on his behalf to Farmers.

“Dale has asthma and it is likely that the smoke damage to his home, as a result of the recent wildfires, will exacerbate his asthma,” she wrote.

Farmers agents have told the Hendershots that they will not be reimbursed if they move out of their house until it is cleaned.

Payne’s and the Hendershots’ view on the home damage continues to differ from that of Farmers. In a letter to the Hendershots, sent in August, a Farmers’ agent recognized that “ash or embers caused damage to your deck, garage doors and garage entry door.” But, “although you state there is additional damage to the home’s stucco and windows from heat, no such damage was observed during Mr. Lewis’ (the agent’s) inspection,” the letter reads.

The battle continued into November when the Hendershots, along with some of Payne’s other clients, decided to seek legal advice.

Payne has 50 clients in the Waldo Canyon burn area, but to him, those having issues with Farmer’s are outliers. The Hendershots are definitely not alone, he says.

“Most of the (insurance) problems that are happening in the Waldo Canyon area are typical big business problems. All insurance companies are tough to deal with,” he said. “That’s how it is — all the other claims are moving forward, kind of like they always do, with everyone but Farmers (clients).”

Farmers has addressed the eight complaints that were filed to DORA, Freeman said.

“When the complaints were filed, we proactively reinspected each of those claims, to make sure that we properly inspected that process,” Freeman explained. “In a couple of cases, we realized we did miss something right away,” and a regional inspector was sent to Colorado to further investigate the claims.

The regional inspector also visited the Hendershots, whose claim remains one of two of the original eight complaints being parsed through by Farmers. Three complaints filed against Farmers were dimissed by DORA, which found that Farmers was not at legal fault, records show. The five others mentioned by Farmers were not represented in documents obtained by The Gazette.

Whether they are in the right or not, the Hendershots and others feel paralyzed. Their lives have come to an impasse, while they are mired in insurance struggles.

“You ask any of these people,” Dale said from his home in mid-November, as he gestured to his entire neighborhood with the sweep of his arm. They all feel the same, he says, “All I want is my house the way it was before the fire.”

Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261

Twitter @ryanmhandy

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