BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4)– Rebuilding after a wildfire is an extremely difficult process. In the 18 months after the Fourmile Fire, only a fraction of the families have returned. This week CBS4 visited a couple who lost everything to see how they made it back.

Moments after the fire started Rich Nuzzi snapped pictures from his backyard in Sunshine Canyon.

“Within ten minutes the smoke had turned black and it was really moving,” Rich recalls.

Within hours, he was forced to evacuate their redwood-sided Victorian home. His wife Stephanie O’Hearn was hiking with the dogs and was not allowed back up the Canyon. Rich and Stephanie met later that day in Boulder, where they camped out in a friend’s basement.

That night they got the call from the fire chief.

Stephanie remembers the Chief’s exact words, “Your house is gone. We’re looking at the chimney.”

“At that point we just looked at each other and took a deep breath and said, okay let’s do something,” said Stephanie.

The next morning they met with representatives of Farmers Insurance over breakfast.

“He said I’ll have a number to you in a week,” and Rich said they followed through. ”Within a week he had a number and called us and told us what our budget was. The next day we hired an architect.”

The No. 1 problem they navigated was not with their insurance company, it was with their mortgage company.

“Oh yeah, you still owe money, just because the house is gone, you still owe the payments,” said Rich.

Rich and Stephanie say GMAC was slow, incrementally releasing their insurance money as they rebuilt, bit by bit.

fourmile fire Some Homeowners Rebuild Quickly After A Wildfire

Fourmile Fire (credit: CBS)

The Fourmile Fire started on Labor Day. The couple broke ground on their new home before Thanksgiving. Just eight months later they moved into their new home, one of the first to return to the burn area. Instead of their redwood Victorian, they built a net-zero energy home with a detached office and a garage adorned with massive solar panels.

“It’s home!” Stephanie says, “It’s wonderful!”

So how were Rich and Stephanie able to rebuild so fast when many of their neighbors’ home are still rubble?

“The speed of which we rebuilt was a direct result of our insurance company being right on it and not arguing about anything.” Rich appreciates hearing, “Here’s your budget. Go to work.”

But it is obvious not all of his neighbors are having the same luck.

“The ones that are rubble fall into two categories” Rich explains, “One where people have adequate insurance coverage, but their insurance companies are fighting with them”. There were also a second group of neighbors that did not have adequate coverage. Rich says he made sure he had plenty of insurance after a different fire damaged his office years ago.

Farmers Insurance claims adjuster Ben Johnson said Rich and Stephanie also played a big role in their rebuilding. They never had a doubt whether they wanted to rebuild.

“Sometimes folks don’t know whether or not to rebuild.” Johnson continues, “They don’t know what the community is going to be like when its back.”

But Stephanie and Rich call rebuilding part of the healing process.

“We just knew,” Stephanie says. “This is our home and it was important for us to get back here.”

– By Mark Ackerman for

Wildfire Resources

– Visit’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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