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4,000 cars, one exit: Residents in growing neighborhoods worry their new neighbors could crowd wildfire escape routes

Proposed developments in Conifer and Colorado Springs have raised concern over wildfire preparedness as fires become more intense and the state continues to grow.

A northeast view overlooking Morrison is seen on Nov. 15, 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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CONIFER — A fire chief warning county officials in all-caps that he would be “UNABLE TO PROTECT” a proposed housing complex might have sounded like its death knell. 

But in this mountain community west of Denver, the developer decided instead to file a lawsuit seeking a court-ordered takeover of the Elk Creek Fire Protection District. 

The unusual escalation has alarmed some residents in Conifer, an unincorporated town of around 8,000, who fear the proposed 188-unit development would drain their water supply and clog the main evacuation route out of town in the event of a forest fire.

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“It’s a big scary thing to us,” said Amy Tyson, who has lived in Conifer for 27 years. “Developers come up here and put in a lot of houses or whatever they want to put in and we’re the ones that pay the price either with our wells going dry or forest fires starting.”

The monthslong dispute illustrates the tensions that can arise as Colorado’s growing population pushes developments into more fire-prone zones. And it could offer a glimpse of fights to come, as a changing climate focuses new attention on water availability and the threat of wildfires, especially along the ribbons of land where wilderness meets development. 

Between 1990 and 2010, the number of housing units in the wildland urban interface in Colorado increased 74% and more than 40% of the state’s housing units were nestled there in 2010, according to a report from the nonprofit Community Wildfire Planning Center. The acreage of the interface is projected to grow 300% by 2030 compared with 2000, according to a Colorado State University analysis. The state’s population is also experiencing rapid population growth — projected to increase more than 30% by 2050. Most wildfires are caused by human activity

“We’re paying for having more people right on the edge of the wildland areas and the drier climate,” said Mike Robinson, a wildfire modeling expert and professor at Old Dominion University. “Absolutely, there’s a greater risk.”

That growth has already ignited divisive questions about wildfire preparedness in a state that has no standard for what evacuation planning must be done before building.

A hand crew from Mountain View Fire puts water on hotspots in trees along Kuehster Road in Conifer on Thursday, March 29, 2012. (Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post via AP Photo)

In Colorado Springs, where nearly a quarter of residents live in the wildland-urban interface, city officials recently halted a proposed 420-unit apartment building after community group Westside Watch accused the city of not taking adequate steps to see how long it would take residents to evacuate in a wildfire. 

The group last week asked city council members to adopt an ordinance that would require the city to check evacuation times before approving a new development. The owner of the development, 2424 GOTG LLC, said it was being penalized for the city’s failure to create evacuation plans and sued the city.

With fires growing hotter and faster in a drought-stricken West and developments getting more dense, there will be more scenarios in which there’s not enough time to evacuate residents, said Tom Cova, a geography professor from the University of Utah who specializes in wildfire evacuation planning.

“It’s already happening, so it’s not really a prediction,” he said. 

Bailey, a small town 15 miles from Conifer, has only one evacuation route for roughly 2,000 homes, he said. 

“Instantly, that’s 4,000 cars in one exit,” Cova said. “We’re pinning ourselves into a corner, so as a community gets more and more dense, we’re giving ourselves fewer and fewer options.”

“A recipe for disaster”

Conifer has a rural fire protection district with 22 year-round employees and a roughly $4.1 million annual budget. It doesn’t have a ladder truck — they cost about $1.2 million each — so the district can’t reach roofs more than 30 feet high, Elk Creek Fire Protection District Chief Jacob Ware said. The proposed housing complex calls for a mix of townhomes, apartment-style units and single family dwellings, some of which would be taller than that. 

The closest fire truck with a ladder is a 45-minute drive away in good weather, Ware said. 

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For many residents, the threat of wildfire isn’t theoretical. They’ve seen huge plumes of smoke rising in the sky. They’ve raced from their homes in vehicles packed with kids and precious possessions. Some have lost neighbors.

Among Colorado counties, Jefferson County has the most homes in high and extreme wildfire risk areas. Within the county, Conifer and nearby Evergreen are among the highest-risk areas — surpassing several California municipalities where recent major wildfires raged, according to a report from analytics and risk assessment firm Verisk and the county’s 2020 Wildfire Risk Reduction Task Force report

The last big fire in the area was years ago, Ware said, and there is lots of fuel — shrubs, needles, weakened timber stands — for a fire to burn through.

“There is going to be a catastrophic fire up here. Whether or not it’s in my career or it’s not, that’s kind of a roll of the dice,” he said. 

In an October 2020 letter to county officials — the one with the all-caps warning — Ware wrote that his district lacked the funding, staffing and resources to protect the proposed development, which would turn an agricultural space into a development with the density closer to that of a suburban or urban area.

The warning, to some residents, was chilling.

Resident Dan Burke and his wife, Megan on Nov. 15, 2021, in Morrison. “These are mostly rural style single family homes on large plots,” Burke said. “When you do a dense multifamily type housing development … I don’t think there’s a responsible way to provide water to all those people in such a dense area.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“Isn’t that horrifying?” said Dan Burke, who grew up in north Idaho and moved to the Conifer area in 2013. “I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it because that is my worst nightmare — getting trapped in a wildfire.”

Burke and other residents have taken steps to protect their homes against fire, cutting down trees close by, keeping grass short and adding fire-resistant windows. 

Still, Burke said he struggled in 2013 to get an insurer to carry a policy on his home because it’s in a “red flag” fire district. 

“I think I went to four or five different companies before I finally found somebody who would underwrite it,” he said. 

He pays $4,180 a year for homeowner’s insurance, up from an estimated $2,500 or $3,000 less than a decade ago, he said.

Peter Dunbar, a former police chief who supervised evacuations during the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire in California, said U.S. 285 — the major route through Conifer — is “totally insufficient” and an evacuation would be even more perilous if 188 new housing units were added.

Fire Chief Jacob Ware, of the Elk Creek Fire Department on Nov. 15, 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

He called the plan a “recipe for disaster.” The highway sometimes shuts down for hours when there’s an accident and becomes jammed on weekends and holidays, residents who oppose the development said.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Dunbar, who lives in Evergreen. “It’s all about greed. There’s no doubt in my mind, because they’ve tried and tried and continue to try to pound the square peg in a round hole.”

Dunbar remembers people panicking and driving the wrong way on freeways while fleeing the Oakland Hills fire, which killed 25 people. Smoke can be thick and confuse those leaving their homes. Shifting winds catch residents and officials alike off guard, he said. People can “water their houses” and take other precautions, but it won’t be enough in an unpredictable wildfire.

“Too many cars on too little roads”

Residents in Colorado Springs raised similar alarms when a 420-unit apartment complex was proposed near the entrance of the Mountain Shadows neighborhood, which was largely destroyed by the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012. 

City council members approved the complex in May, but withdrew their support in the final vote in August after hearing residents’ concerns that it could lengthen evacuation times for those living on the west side. 

Opponents of the development recalled how the Waldo Canyon fire exploded into communities and quickly scorched more than 18,000 acres, killing two residents and destroying 347 homes. Fleeing residents were gridlocked on the road for hours as they sought safety. 

“You don’t have to be a transportation engineer to look at these things and say, ‘Wow, they are one spark from a disaster here,’” said Robinson, who was asked by Westside Watch to evaluate evacuation times for two of the city’s districts using a computer simulation model he helped develop. 

Robinson’s analysis showed that in the best-case scenario — with 1.5 people per car — it would take northwest Colorado Springs residents 4 hours and 20 minutes to evacuate. In the Broadmoor area, it could take 3 hours and 50 minutes for all residents to leave. 

That does not take into account tourists visiting attractions like the Garden of the Gods Park, Seven Falls, the Broadmoor Resort and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. 

“Too many cars on too little roads,” he said. “What would normally take you 15 minutes would take you anywhere from 6½  to 8½ hours, which is pretty close to what happened when you had the Waldo Canyon fire.”

Robinson was also part of a consulting team that looked at evacuation plans after the 2018 Camp fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire. In both areas, narrow roads without shoulders and houses tucked up against vegetation dramatically increased residents’ risk. 

“When I looked at Colorado Springs, I saw the same kind of danger that we had identified in California,” he said. 

Colorado Springs Police Chief Vince Niski and Fire Chief Randy Royal told city council members they were confident in their departments’ ability to evacuate residents.

Jim Reid, director of the Pikes Peak region’s Office of Emergency Management, said in a written statement that modeling was inflexible and could never replace the “boots on the ground first responder who is on scene.”

“Currently we have out-of-state, paid consultants pitching a product to city council and the city that they would present as the singular answer to evacuation,” he said.

Communities already face evacuation problems

In Conifer, an evacuation plan submitted on behalf of the developer says the proposed complex would have an “obvious impact” on evacuations, but that impact is unknown. Neither the fire protection district nor a neighboring community’s evacuation plan could provide direction, the plan said.

The developer separately agreed to spend more than $3 million to temporarily help pay for three new firefighters and to buy the fire district a “quint” truck, which has ladders, a pump, water tank and fire hose. The offer was based on a consultant’s study and resources requested by the fire district to protect the new housing. 

But in April, the fire district’s board voted 3-2 against the proposal, amid concerns about the district’s resources, and the implication that the developer would get special treatment. 

Foothills Housing 1 LLC — the development company pursuing the housing complex —  sued in May alleging the Elk Creek Fire Protection District breached an agreement to provide fire and emergency medical services. It also asked for a receiver to take over the district, suggesting that in rejecting the more than $3 million deal, the board had prompted their lawsuit and was now “wasting significant financial resources.” 

A judge dismissed four of the developer’s claims, writing in one order that he was surprised by the request to appoint a receiver and found it to be “substantially groundless.” 

The case is still active, and Ware said he could not discuss it. 

Stuart Borne, with Foothills Housing, said he would not comment on the judge’s order. He accused the fire district board members who voted against the agreement of raising illegitimate concerns and trying to use their roles on the board to restrict zoning — a job for county officials — instead of determining if the resources were enough to protect the community.

Residents of the proposed development would help pay for the added costs through a new special district and through property taxes, the developer said. Remaining costs would have to be made up elsewhere.

The proposed development, Conifer Center, is on agricultural land overlooking a meadow, southeast of the local Safeway. The land must be approved for rezoning by county officials. The development would then go through another approval process.

The site of a 188-unit proposed development near Turkey Creek is seen on Nov. 15, 2021, in Conifer. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

A spokeswoman for Jefferson County said the commissioners wouldn’t comment on a project because it is going through the rezoning process.

Chris O’Keefe, Jefferson County’s planning and zoning director, described a lengthy approval process in which department staff chase down answers and analyses from the developer and various agencies — like those dealing with transportation and public health — before forwarding the application on to a county planning commission and then county commissioners, who make the final decision. 

Having an evacuation plan approved isn’t part of the checklist of items that must be met as part of the development process, though agencies or officials can weigh in. 

Kevin Bost, a commander in the county sheriff’s office, which typically orders evacuations, said they don’t map out set evacuation routes because wildfire behavior is so unpredictable. Officials instead push residents to prepare themselves for wildfire evacuations and to be familiar with possible evacuation routes. 

“It’s a densely populated area and the minute we tell people to evacuate, that can definitely slow traffic down,” Bost said.

He said he was confident in the county’s ability to get a large number of residents out quickly.

Rob Brown, head of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said there have always been questions about resources versus growth, but fire chiefs are increasingly under pressure with the push to build in the wildland-urban interface.

Chiefs don’t want to stop growth or get in the way of added population and tax revenue, he said. They also don’t want to “get to a point where one day things go seriously bad. And somebody says to the fire chief, ‘Hey, why didn’t you say something?’”

Rebecca Samulski, executive director of the nonprofit Fire Adapted Colorado, said many local officials and fire districts don’t have the resources or technical know-how to take on evacuation planning and modeling for wildfires. 

She said the state could provide funding or technical support to make evacuation modeling easier, especially because it already has the data needed to do so, like information about housing density, roads, their width and the surrounding vegetation.

Many communities face potential evacuation problems even without a new development added to the mix. Limited routes in and out, poor signage, steep slopes, and fuel close to the road could all pose evacuation obstacles and are often expensive to fix retroactively, Samulski said. 

She said the lack of required evacuation modeling stems in part from the state’s belief in local control, mirroring pushback against building codes and other restrictions to minimize wildfire risks. There’s a fine line between aversion to state mandates and concerns about liability, she said. 

While there’s work being done at a state level to bolster fire safety, Democratic Rep. Marc Snyder, of Manitou Springs, said he feels local jurisdictions need to take the lead to keep residents safe in the event of a wildfire. 

“Folks are scared,” said Snyder, who was mayor of Manitou Springs during the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire. 

“I was at that daily press conference when that dry thunderstorm brought that thing down from the canyon,” Snyder said during last week’s Colorado Springs city council meeting. “It was horrific.” 

He recalled flaming pine cones, the size of grapefruits, flying across the sky. 

“We got out of there by the skin of our teeth. I think we need something to give confidence to our folks in the (wildland urban interface) that we are on top of this and looking at all of the different options,” Snyder said.