STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Fred McCracken goes to sleep with the sun since the power went out in his mobile home nearly 50 days ago.
Down the lane at Sleepy Bear Mobile Home Park, neighbors Efrain Farias and José Banales are taking turns filling up gas tanks to feed the generator between their two homes. They run it a few hours each night, long enough to heat water so their families can take hot showers after work. The gas costs about $25 every day or two.
Norma Ruth Ryan eats beef jerky for dinner and chooses between sitting in her suffocatingly hot mobile home or on the stoop with the mosquitoes after getting home from work at the Storm Peak Brewing Company.
The mobile home park along the Yampa River at the northern edge of Steamboat has been without electricity since June 16, when fire broke out near one mobile home’s electric pedestal, climbed up the outside wall of the trailer and burned down the next-door neighbor’s backyard shed. In the shadow of a world-class ski resort and dozens of multimillion-dollar homes, the residents of Sleepy Bear still have no lights.
“It makes me furious,” Ryan said outside the home she chose for peace and quiet when she moved to Steamboat from Denver. “Like how? How is this happening?”
“It’s very dark. I keep all my curtains closed and all my windows closed. It’s very hot. Nighttime at first was kind of novel because it’s so quiet without the hum of electricity, but now it’s kind of unsettling. It’s very depressing. I started to figure out ways to not come home as long as possible.”
The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but what’s known so far is that an excavation company was repairing a water leak when the electricity went out. And when the power was restarted, the surge ignited the fire. Routt County’s building department issued a compliance notice requiring the mobile home park owner to fix the electrical system — a process that has taken more than a month and a half and counting.
Fifteen of the park’s 54 mobile homes, along the same street, have been without power this summer.
The food in their refrigerators rotted. Now they keep coolers on their porches filled with milk, lunch meat and sometimes beer. McCracken lives like he’s camping, grilling his dinner on a small outdoor stove. With no television to watch after work, and their houses too hot for comfort, the neighbors talk to each other more. They gathered for a cookout and a pizza party, compared stories on what it’s like to live in 90-degree heat when they can’t plug in the air-conditioning unit or keep cold drinks in the fridge. As always, the neighborhood kids cruise up and down the paved street on scooters and bikes.
Ryan has a tent on her front lawn where charities and the people of Steamboat have dropped off groceries, pizzas and a barbecue grill. She put out a call on Facebook for coolers, and several were delivered to her yard. At the end of the street, the fire department parked a trailer hooked up to solar power, and charities donated a refrigerator and freezer where residents can store their meat and cheese and pick up bags of ice. Restaurant owners have given out gift cards.
None of them imagined the power outage would last this long.
Aging infrastructure required full replacement
Like most mobile home parks across the country, Sleepy Bear’s infrastructure is decades old. The park was built in the 1950s and, before becoming a mobile home park, was an RV campground along the scenic Yampa River. It’s unclear whether the electrical system is as old as the park because the records don’t exist, but it’s old, said Thomas Morgan, manager of KTH Enterprises, which bought Sleepy Bear 10 years ago.
The Carbondale company, which owns two other parks in Salida and Palisade, is now under investigation by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs after the state agency received two complaints from residents of the Steamboat mobile home park about the power outage.
Morgan said he is confident the state will find that the power outage was not due to negligence but because of an aging electrical system that includes not only the underground lines owned by the park, but the electrical boxes and electrical wires in each of the mobile homes, as well as the transformer owned by Yampa Valley Electric. KTH Enterprises has spent about $1 million in the past 10 years on maintenance at the park, from electrical and water lines, to paving and landscaping, Morgan said.
“It was a complete accident,” he said. “Things get old and when they break, you fix them. Here we are.”
“We’re fortunate no one got hurt.”
Repairing the old electrical system was not an option because it would not meet current code, meaning the park owner needed to replace the main line, electrical lines to each home and the pedestals — which include meters — for each home. Because the residents own their homes, they are responsible for the electric lines that bring power inside from the meter.
That means the owners of all 15 homes without power each must hire an electrician and get a permit to certify that the wiring in their homes is safe before their power is restored. It’s a huge task, considering the shortage of electricians during the middle of a construction boom.
Just five of the 15 homes so far have hired an electrician, according to county officials, who have waived permit fees. Some residents told The Colorado Sun they’ve tried to contact electricians but have gotten nowhere, in part, they believe, because a mobile home repair is not top priority for busy contractors. Others said they were confused about where to even begin.
Home owners received notice from the county about a month ago that they each needed a permit from the building department to have their electricity restored. The park owner’s contractor is expected to finish the work any day and the county building department has vowed to inspect the job as soon as it’s finished. But each home will not get its power restored without a permit.
“They have had a month to do that,” said Morgan, with KTH Enterprises. “With property ownership comes responsibility. They are not just victims in this.”
KTH is using public information requests to determine which homeowners acquired permits over the years to do electrical work in their homes, which are required when homeowners change their amperage to meet the increased demand of more appliances and air conditioning. “Very few have,” Morgan said.
Routt County United Way is paying up to $1,000 of the costs per home for the electrical work and inspection, and the county plans to send an inspector while the work is underway so it can approve a permit on the spot.
The county also sent up a plea for help to any electrical contractors in Colorado who could come to Steamboat and get power restored to each home. “Any licensed electrical contractor in the state of Colorado,” begged Todd Carr with the Routt County Building Department.
Carr noted that KTH Enterprises acted as quickly as possible to hire a contractor to rebuild the electrical system, submitting a permit application within four days of the fire. And the county has made permitting in the park its “top priority.”
“The minute they need an inspection,” he said, “we just drop all other work and go there.”
Unlike other neighborhoods, the park owner also owns the electrical system
The situation is unique because of the laws surrounding mobile home parks. The park owner also owns the electrical system, unlike in a typical subdivision of homes where the electric utility — such as Xcel Energy — owns the system.
And while a utility, already governed by strict regulations, could work around-the-clock to fix its system and does not need a permit, a mobile home park owner must hire a contractor to take on responsibility for the job, Carr said.
In typical mobile home parks, including Sleepy Bear, residents own their homes but not the land underneath them, so they can’t hire an electrician to work outside their home. The park owner’s responsibility ends at each home’s meter, and the home owners are responsible for the power line that runs from the meter to their breaker box.
State officials said they could not provide information about their investigation into the mobile park because their work is ongoing. The complaints against the park were filed with the state Department of Local Affairs under the “mobile home park oversight program,” which accepts complaints from park landlords and residents.
Depending on the outcome of the investigation, Sleepy Bear residents could qualify for reimbursement of expenses related to the power outage, said Brett McPherson, a spokesperson for the department.
So far, the park owner has credited Sleepy Bear residents for lot rent for the month of July as well as half of June. Residents said they pay $580 per month to live in Sleepy Bear, far less than the average rent in the ski town.
Farias, a maintenance worker who has lived in Sleepy Bear since 2004, has been taking loads of laundry to work since the power went out. His boss let him borrow the generator. Normally, Farias, his wife, Paola, and their three kids love living in Sleepy Bear, where tall purple flowers shoot from their garden and the river is just steps from their backyard.
This summer, though, they’re tired. Their stamina is fading after 49 days without electricity, no way to turn on the swamp cooler or use most appliances in the kitchen. To make it worse, the air is smoky from the nearby Morgan Creek Fire, which makes it hard to keep the windows open and circulate air in their home. “During the week, I work almost all day,” Farias said. “On the weekends, it’s terrible.”
An electrician Farias tried to hire said the job was too much responsibility, citing concerns about working in a mobile home park where the electrical system had failed, Farias said.
As the summer of no power has dragged on, Ryan has found ways not to come home. She goes to work at the brewery early, she stays there late. She showers at the KOA campground next door and meets friends after work for dinner. At first, she said, she was afraid of speaking out against the landlord or the county about the power outage. But not anymore.
“I can’t be scared anymore,” she said. “This is too long. It’s pretty outrageous.”
The residents of Sleepy Bear are hard-working, “paycheck-to-paycheck folks,” people used to “not getting our needs met,” Ryan said. Tucked on a curve on the flatlands on the way out of town, Sleepy Bear is “geographically invisible,” she said.
Ryan and her neighbors are tired of also feeling invisible.
One night last week, McCracken grabbed a bag of ice from the shared, solar-powered freezer down the street. After slamming the ice on his pickup tailgate to break it up, he poured ice chunks into the cooler outside his front door, dropping a few pieces into the water dish for his heeler, Nala.
“It’s like camping and right now it sucks,” McCracken said. “I’m tired of camping.”
McCracken’s dog sleeps on the linoleum floor to keep as cool as possible while he works as a driver each day. Normally, he would come home from work, grab a cold beer and head toward the river with a fishing pole. But his shed full of fishing equipment burned down the night of the fire. Besides, he’s too busy cleaning up the mess the fire left in his backyard, pulling out his camping stove because it’s too hot to cook in the house, and staying outside until dark because he can’t turn on any fans in the house.
“When it gets too dark to see what I’m doing, I go to bed,” he said. “We’re just tired of being in limbo. We’re just absolutely exhausted from not knowing.”