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Builder shortage, insurance challenges contribute to slow recovery after East Troublesome Fire

Between a lack of builders and insurance challenges, rebuilding after the wildfire has been a slow process.

GRAND COUNTY, Colo. — Recovery is slow two years after the East Troublesome Fire destroyed nearly 400 homes in Grand County and changed thousands of lives forever. 

While some have chosen to leave the area behind, most who are rebuilding still find themselves in the middle of a process that can sometimes feel impossible.

On the anniversary of the second-biggest wildfire in state history, a shortage of builders in the area has some families searching around the country for help.  

From June: East Troublesome Fire was human-caused

Outside a home filled with construction workers, Mary and Paul Johnson realize how lucky they are. 

"We’ve been here since 1993," Mary said. "But we’ve been around Grand Lake our whole lives."

They'll be moving into their newly-rebuilt home this week. 

"It’s really resurrected from the ashes. It’s built on the original site of our log cabin," Paul said. "For us to be rebuilding and knowing our close friends are gone or are waiting two more years is a horrible feeling."

From August: East Troublesome Fire survivors waiting years to rebuild

Families are waiting for years to break ground in a rural part of the state overrun with demand.

"It feels awesome to be done," Mary said. "But I have to tell you, I feel bad for all of those people who aren’t here yet with us."

Credit: KUSA

The fire took the Johnson home, along with both their neighbors'. Most other homes nearby survived. Recovery looks different for everyone.

"Our neighbor has a contractor who is working on five other homes and our other neighbor hasn’t even been able to start, two years later," Paul said. "Not a shovel in the dirt has moved."

Crews are finishing Paul and Mary’s home this week. The only reason that’s possible is because they hired a contractor from across the country.

"We would’ve never been here besides the grace of a contractor coming from Pennsylvania," Paul said. "We wouldn’t have been able to even be thinking about a house. It’s that bad here."

Credit: KUSA

At Les Watkins' construction site across town, the sounds of recovery are just beginning, 21 months after the planning started to rebuild this home also destroyed by the fire.

"It’s been very slow for the homeowners," said Watkins, owner of LD Watkins Construction Services in Granby. "The hard part about Grand County and the East Troublesome Fire is that we’re a very cold climate. A lot of snow, so we have a very short building season. If you miss that building season, you’ve missed as a homeowner. The prime season is about five months."

> Aerial footage of burned land following the East Troublesome Fire

Only 135 permits have been issued to rebuild homes destroyed by the fire. That’s around a third of the total homes lost. 

As construction costs rise, labor is difficult to find, and insurance runs out, it’s unknown how many more will rebuild.

From August: Survivors of East Troublesome Fire sue insurance company

Builders in the area say they’re beginning to see more families decide to move away from Grand County instead of rebuilding. The number of permits submitted to the county to rebuild homes destroyed by fires has slowed down over the past year.

> Aerial footage of the house rebuild after two years

"If you don’t do it, somebody else is going to grab the contractor. Somebody else is going to grab the excavator," Paul said. "It’s really a gold rush mentality."

Work never stops in Grand County. 

"As much as people want to grieve and need to grieve, you have to learn how to grieve at the same time that you’re moving," Mary said. "You can’t sit still."

Eventually persistence pays off, as burned land starts to look like home again.

"It would be heaven on Earth to say, this is our house. This is our new beginning," Paul said. "That’s what we hope for."

From 2021: A year after East Troublesome Fire, 'almost no one' has started to rebuild

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