Rural homes fuel threat of wildfire | AspenTimes.com
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Rural homes fuel threat of wildfire

Local fire departments are holding developers of homes in rural areas to higher standards than ever, but questions remain whether it is enough to prevent catastrophic wildfires.

One year after the Coal Seam fire consumed 28 homes in West Glenwood Springs and the Panorama fire destroyed two houses and threatened scores more in Missouri Heights, development in wildfire hazard areas of the Roaring Fork Valley remains rampant.

Mansions are currently being constructed in the middle of the 1,700 acres charred by the Panorama fire, noted Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.

“People don’t want to live in [Basalt’s] Elk Run. They don’t want to live in [El Jebel’s] Sopris Village. They want to live in Missouri Heights without any neighbors,” said Thompson.

Basalt fire officials have determined there are more than 500 homes within their sprawling district that are in “red zones,” areas identified as having high wildfire hazard. The district stretches from Capitol Creek Road up to Missouri Heights.

The Carbondale department is facing the same issue. Many homes are getting built far enough away from the fire station and substations that a quick response is all but impossible. Often times, the thinly stretched fire departments are forced to add equipment to serve the rural development.

“This growth is hurting the fire departments,” said Carbondale Fire Chief Ron Leach at a Garfield County commissioners meeting last week.

One of the latest luxury subdivisions in Missouri Heights is being built up a steep, narrow, mountainous road nine miles from where the bulk of a fire-fighting effort would be launched from Carbondale.

That luxury subdivision, known as the Ranch at Coulter Creek, is the poster child for the dilemma facing the county governments, fire departments and even developers of the Roaring Fork Valley. The proposal is for 26 houses on 479 acres. Two houses will be 12,000 square feet; the remainder will be 8,000 square feet.

Leach told the Garfield commissioners that the Snowmass Land Co., the developer of the Ranch at Coulter Creek, had prepared a thorough wildfire mitigation plan.

Roads and driveways in the large-lot subdivision were built to accommodate firetrucks; homeowners would be required to incorporate “defensible space” around their homes by thinning and removing trees and brush; sprinkler systems were required in the homes; and adequate water supplies would be provided on each lot through hydrants or storage tanks in case of fire.

“I don’t know what else to have them do,” Leach told the commissioners at a review of the project last week. “We held them to a pretty high bar.”

Nevertheless, concerns remain. Garfield County Commissioner Larry McCown said he was concerned that long driveways to the lots were a recipe for disaster. Fire could roll over the terrain in a way that would trap the residents and prevent evacuation, he said.

McCown also questioned how long the terrain surrounding the homes would remain defensible. That started a debate that showed a glaring hole in wildfire prevention efforts.

Garfield County, like Eagle and Pitkin counties, requires homes to have defensible space cleared around them before they can be used. But county officials say they don’t have the financial resources to check in future years to make sure that space is maintained.

Leach made it clear, as did Basalt’s Thompson, that the fire department’s resources don’t allow them to make follow-up visits to homes in rural areas.

That leaves enforcement to the homeowners’ associations – a questionable authority at best. Government officials are banking on the last two wildfire seasons to provide incentive to force homeowners’ associations to get tougher with members.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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