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El Paso County hopes for disaster grant to help Black Forest residents

July 2, 2013 Updated: July 2, 2013 at 7:25 am

El Paso County is hoping for a potential presidential disaster declaration that state and local officials say would ease the next few months for thousands of residents impacted by the Black Forest fire.

Beyond the 511 homes destroyed, the two deaths and the thousands of acres of blackened trees, the Black Forest fire dealt a heavy blow to many homeowners who were uninsured or underinsured, officials say.

One of the best ways to help them could come from the federal government in the form of a hard-to-get grant.

"Unfortunately, there are a significant number of people in Black Forest who are uninsured," said Jim Riesberg, who attended an insurance meeting Monday night at New Life Church. Riesberg, the soon-to-be former commissioner of Colorado's Division of Insurance, was among those on a panel of insurance experts offering advice about filing claims. More than 100 homeowners attended.

The meeting, hosted by El Paso County commissioners, became an all-inclusive forum for insurance questions, particularly as homeowners are dealing with a changed Colorado: Some insurance companies are dropping clients or raising premiums. Wildfires aren't the only disaster spiking insurance rates, Riesberg said. Flash floods like the one that hit Manitou Springs on Monday night also make Coloradans high-risk clients.

But then, there are those who have no insurance.

The exact number of uninsured homeowners in Black Forest is unknown. But it's a number that Federal Emergency Management Agency and county officials spent the past week trying to nail down, as they combed through the burn area.

Gov. John Hickenlooper's office expects to spend this week finalizing numbers - assessing homes lost, people without insurance and other economic impacts - to make the strongest argument for a federal disaster declaration. A similar petition was made after the Waldo Canyon fire, but the state was only granted certain categories of aid.

This time, El Paso County has its sights set on individual aid for the uninsured.

"We all hope that we get the individual assistance grant," said Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association.

Colorado has already been given a Fire Management Assistance grant, which will pay for 75 percent of the state's firefighting costs, said Katie Appenrodt, an external affairs specialist with FEMA. But Colorado is now making a pitch to qualify for a more specific aid packages.

There is no specific threshold that El Paso County must meet to qualify for the grant, Appenrodt said. Instead, a disaster-hit region has to prove the broad, "holistic" impacts, she said. Officials from FEMA spent days assessing the number of people displaced by the fire, the number of homes destroyed, and the number of uninsured losses, among other indicators. Although Appenrodt said there is no specific amount of losses the state has to meet, El Paso County commissioners discovered that the county had come up short in one crucial category: uninsured losses. County Commissioner Sallie Clark was told that the county had to prove at least $6.7 million in uninsured losses, which the area has yet to meet, in order to get the coveted private loss grant. Officials with the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department said at least 78 homeowners were uninsured.

At the suggestion of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, a nonprofit fire recovery group, the county has expanded its definition of "loss," and began assessing the damage to the land. Many uninsured homes in Black Forest were older, and the structures leaked asbestos, lead and mercury on the ground, which could later affect water quality, said Carol Ekarius, the coalition's director. Commissioners hope that the cost of cleaning that toxic waste will tip the scale for individual-based aid.

In the meantime, the Rocky Mountain Insurance information Association can only report the number of insured losses. Insurance companies reported 368 insured homes were lost, but that number could rise, Walker said. Until the total number losses to the Black Forest fire are accounted for, the Waldo Canyon fire remains the most expensive in state history, at about $450 million.

Walker expects the Black Forest fire to reach the "hundreds of millions of dollars" mark in terms of loss as well. On Monday, Steve Price, who lost his home in the Waldo Canyon fire, encouraged homeowners to recoup as much of their losses as possible, to "become whole again." It was a message repeated to Waldo fire victims but one that may not be realistic for many Black Forest fire survivors who have discovered that they were grossly underinsured or lacked insurance all together.

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