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Conifer Couple Takes Action After Lower North Fork Fire Close Call

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Julie Rasmussen (credit: CBS)

Julie Rasmussen (credit: CBS)

CONIFER, Colo. (CBS4) – A close call with a deadly wildfire was a big wake-up call for a couple from Conifer.

Although Mike and Julie Rasmussen could see scars from the Hayman Fire out their window, it was the Lower North Fork Fire that killed three people last March that got their attention.

“Having a fire that close was a real wake-up call for us,” said Julie Rasmussen.

The Rasmussen’s were vacationing in Breckenridge when the fire started. As the flames grew more intense they decided to return home and pack their possessions. When they got home they could see plumes of smoke just a ridge away.

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Although not under a mandatory evacuation, the Rasmussens combed through file cabinets plucking out important documents. Then they packed their cars and headed for a relative’s house in Littleton.

“There were things that we just didn’t have at the ready to grab,” Mike recalled.

Julie saw it differently.

“If we really only had 15 or 20 minutes to evacuate we would have had to have left everything behind,” she said.

So in the days after the fire the Rasmussens took action. Julie put all of their essential documents in one folder so she could grab it and go.

“I made copies of all the wills, deeds, titles, statements, birth certificates and passports,” she said.

She also scanned their documents and saved them to a flash drive. Their insurance agent recommended documenting all of their possessions.

“It’s proof of what you had and it also helps you remember what you lost,” said Chuck Riddings of State Farm Insurance.

Riddings recommends specifically cataloging everything you own in a booklet. Another way to document what you have is going room to room with a video camera. He also says it is essential to keep your inventory off-site — at work or in a safety deposit box so the inventory isn’t also lost in a fire.

“I feel a lot more ready than we did when the fire came through,” Mike said.

Mike and Julie are also trying to get their property wildfire ready.

“We didn’t think that much about fire mitigation even though we can see the results of the Hayman Fire out of our window”, Julie said.

After the Lower North Fork Fire, Mike called in a mitigation expert to point out problem spots on the property.

“He came out and marked trees around our property with orange paint. We are in the process of taking those down.” Pointing to a tree in the backyard Mike said, “We are trying to get rid of all these fireballs, like this Juniper.”

Elk Creek Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin calls Mike’s work a “good start.” McLaughlin was the initial incident commander for the Lower North Fork Fire and came to check Mike’s fire mitigation progress.

McLaughlin approved of Mike’s plans to expand his yard,

“Here we have this barrier that’s going to allow those firefighters a little bit of room to work.”

Without defensible space firefighters won’t risk their lives to defend a home.

“We don’t look at it in terms of a value judgment saying, ‘They didn’t mitigate, so we aren’t going to save their home.’ ” the Chief said. “The big deciding factor is safety.”

McLaughlin pointed out a few areas where Mike can improve. He said Mike needs to thin out the trees along his driveway.

“We also look at the road coming in and out of here is there a good escape route if the fire comes,” McLaughlin said.

But the chief applauded Mike’s plans to switch out to fire resistant materials to his deck and siding.

“They are making some really good choices. They are already making some nice space here, moving to non-flammable siding, they are great choices,” McLaughlin said.

“I think what we are doing is we are giving us peace of mind that if we have a fire comes through, our house isn’t just going to go up in smoke,” Mike said.

The Rasmussen’s house was safe — this time. After the fire they decided to check in with their insurance agent.

“We thought about upping the insurance a little bit,” Mike said.

Mike wanted to make sure they had enough coverage. The first question he asked his agent was, “With all the improvements we’ve just done to the house are you going to be able to rebuild it if burned?”

They soon found out they were about $200,000 short, so the Rasmussen’s increased their coverage with State Farm agent Chuck Riddings.

“The most important thing that people can do is continually contact their agent if they make any additions to their home or improvements to their home so they are not under-insured.”

Mike and Julie had the chance to re-evaluate their insurance. Many people who lost homes to the Fourmile Fire in 2010 did not.

Last year CBS4 caught up with Jack Thompson sorting through the melted remains of his tools. Jack thought he had adequate coverage. But soon found out he was under-insured.

“I don’t have enough.” Thompson said. “If I tried to rebuild the house that I Iost; I don’t have enough.”

He’s not alone. Among the people who owned the 169 homes lost in the fire 60 percent of the people they surveyed have turned out to be under-insured by an average of $195,000.

County Recovery Manager Gary Sanfacon told CBS4 how insurance companies left people short on coverage.

“Their software that they use; they plug in numbers and it spits out this number that the insurance company believes is accurate, but we’ve found through this process that it is drastically understated.”

Most people need more insurance and also to realize the things you own are depreciated if you own an Actual Cash Value policy.

The lesson learned from the Fourmile Fire — find out if your policy covers Replacement Cost instead of an Actual Cash Value policy.

Agent Riddings offered one final piece of advice.

“People need to look at their policy with their agent and determine whether people need to upgrade to that better policy,” he said.

- By Mark Ackerman for CBS4Denver.com

Wildfire Resources

- Visit CBSDenver.com’s Wildfire Ready section.

- Read recent Wildfire stories.

Wildfire Photo Galleries

- See images from the most destructive wildfire (Fourmile Fire) and largest wildfire (Hayman Fire) in Colorado history.

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