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Houses and burn areas along Sunshine Canyon Drive are seen on April 12, 2022, in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Fire chief Michael Schmitt is bumping down an unpaved road west of Boulder, barely wide enough for his SUV. He’s headed toward the dead end of County Road 83, where — behind a metal gate, behind tree trunks blackened in the Fourmile Canyon fire — a narrow dirt road is cut into the mountainside.  

If a wildfire is approaching from the southwest, it’s the sole evacuation route for residents in this isolated patch of Boulder County.

“Can you imagine yourself taking a car up there right now?” Schmitt asks, gesturing at the snow-covered road. “That is our only escape route.”

Schmitt’s all-volunteer Sunshine Fire Protection District has long pressed Boulder County for better evacuation routes, fearing the 170 households in the district could be trapped by a fast-moving fire. But their concerns have largely been ignored, they say: the county doesn’t maintain the escape route behind County Road 83. And it hasn’t improved County Road 85J, a steep pot-holed dead end route that used to connect to the town of Salina down the hill.

Schmitt’s district has asked the county to fix it. 

“We’ve been told it’s too expensive,” Schmitt says. 

Commissioners have also approved new houses on narrow one-lane roads that are difficult for fire trucks to reach, increasing the risk that residents or firefighters could be trapped before reaching an evacuation route, fire officials say. 

The concern about escape paths has gained new urgency after the 2021 Marshall fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in suburbs southeast of Schmitt’s district. But the question of how to reconcile limited local budgets and a housing shortage with increasingly destructive wildfires has become a flashpoint in communities across the drought-stricken West. 

Residents in Conifer, Colorado Springs and Glenwood Springs have battled developments in recent years, citing fears that more residents could clog their evacuation routes or sap limited firefighting resources. In California, a landmark ruling in January halted a planned development that could overcrowd escape roads. 

Boulder County officials have said they oppose adding more roads and water sources because it would promote development, three fire officials said.

Schmitt says county officials need to prepare for the reality that there will be more fires.

Uncontrollable and extreme wildfires are projected to increase 14% by 2030 and 50% by the end of the century, according to a United Nations report with contributions from more than 50 experts. The area where wildland brushes up against buildings in Colorado, thought to be at greater risk of wildfire, is expected by 2030 to have expanded by 300% from 2000.

“Look, if you see there’s lots of kids crossing the road there, you don’t wait until two of them get killed, you put up a crosswalk with lights,” Schmitt says. “Kind of the same example here — you don’t wait until people die in a forest fire like they have in California.” 

Houses and burn areas along Sunshine Canyon Drive are seen on April 12, 2022, in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Burned area along County Road 83 is seen on April 12, 2022, in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“There’s no need not to be proactive,” he says.

In 2010, the Fourmile Canyon Fire burned 6,181 acres and destroyed 169 homes in the area, costing about $217 million in filed insurance claims. Since the Marshall fire, at least three fires have prompted evacuations in Boulder County, including one in neighborhoods in the foothills north of Lyons.

International standards for building in wildfire-prone zones recommend having access roads at least 20 feet wide and able to accommodate the weight and turning radius of fire trucks, which can be 10 feet across and 35 feet long. Driveways can be 12 feet across but shouldn’t lead to more than five homes, according to the 2021 International Wildland-Urban Interface Code. Driveways longer than 150 feet should have turnarounds. 

Boulder County has similar guidelines, but those are not always followed. 

Environmental impacts, private property and topographic constraints mean many roads can’t meet the county’s standards, county engineer Mike Thomas said. Most roads built as far back as the late 1800s don’t meet contemporary standards, and some are now surrounded by private property that prevents the road from being widened. The county would have to condemn property from adjoining landowners to do so, Thomas said. 

The county has barred new subdivisions in mountainous areas since 1971, recognizing the risk of wildfire, limited water supplies and sensitive natural environments there, he said. 

“The county has taken a consistent and long-term approach to address development concerns in the mountains,” Thomas said, adding the county’s master plan “directs growth into the municipalities where there are urban services.”

It also has a credit program that lets people sell the development rights off their land to keep it vacant. 

But that doesn’t mean homes aren’t being built in the mountain zones. In recent years, new houses have been built on unpaved side roads with one way out. Firefighters and residents are at greater risk of getting trapped there, either by flames or an approaching car that blocks the road, fire officials say. 

Ambulances and tow trucks have gotten stuck on the narrow driveways. 

The one-lane roads also have the potential to slow down fire response times. It can take 100,000 gallons of water to fight a big house fire. In parts of the Boulder County foothills without pressurized water or fire hydrants, fire trucks haul in water 1,000 to 2,000 gallons at a time. 

“Some of the roads take 20, 30, 40 minutes to go one way,” says Bret Gibson, chief of the Four Mile Fire Department. “I got to dump water, turn around and leave, and because they’re one-way roads, I can’t have multiple trucks coming and going.” 

“It’s an incredible frustration to us”

​​Over his more than 20 years with the Sunshine Fire Protection District, former fire marshal Bruce Honeyman says the district has “hit our heads against this wall” — asking the county to expand evacuation routes and to not approve new houses in areas with limited roads in and out without improvements. He even took county officials down to look at County Road 85J — the route that once connected to Salina, where a half-dozen homes have been built. They saw how dangerous it was, he says, but nothing happened.

“It’s an incredible frustration to us,” Honeyman says. 

County Road 85 peels off Sunshine Canyon Drive to the southeast of Bighorn mountain. 

It’s a one-lane dirt road bordered by a rocky hillside on one side and a valley on the other. Branches have fallen into the part of the road meant to be a shoulder. The road is steep, curvy and poorly maintained. District firefighters drive the road backward as a test for maneuvering in adverse conditions. 

Houses and burn areas along Sunshine Canyon Drive are seen on April 12, 2022, in Boulder. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The last quarter-mile or so of County Road 85 turns into a “J” road, a designation that means it’s accessible only by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. Those roads are not maintained by the county beyond keeping them “passable,” Thomas said. 

The county also does not maintain the escape route behind County Road 83, which runs north from Sunshine Canyon Drive. Commissioners denied a request from fire districts to help with minor work to make the road more passable, Thomas said. It’s maintained by the Sunshine and Boulder Mountain fire protection districts.

In 2020, Honeyman told county officials County Road 85J had become a treacherous chokepoint for emergency operations and evacuations. The county was putting residents at risk by approving new houses on the road without improving it — a point the fire district had raised with increasing alarm over two decades, he wrote. 

“We have in response received sympathy for our position from the county and much hand-wringing but no solution to the fundamental problem of development along a dangerous road,” Honeyman wrote, in comments opposing a new house. “It is long past time to directly address this issue.” 

That developer backed out of that project.

In another case, Honeyman argued against a proposed development of up to three homes because the driveway could be easily blocked, penning in residents and responders. The road already had six houses along it and, as early as 2005, Honeyman had raised concerns it posed an “undue risk.”

Residents also protested the potential development, describing the road as “incredibly narrow in many spots” and “dirt with many potholes.” The addition of more homes on such a small road would delay the arrival of fire trucks or impede their ability to flee, neighbors Jean and Paul Lange wrote.

“Anyone who experienced the Fourmile fire can tell you that the need for easy ingress/ egress cannot be overstated,” they wrote, referring to the 2010 fire that destroyed 169 homes.  

Honeyman, who retired on March 30, described the ongoing debate as exasperating.

“There’s a substantial ethical issue involved when the fire department says, ‘We do not approve development down that road because it will be dangerous,’” Honeyman says, “and the commissioners say, ‘Again, well we understand that, thank you for your service, but we’re going to develop it anyway.’”

Schmitt and Honeyman say there should be different standards for building in the mountains, where it’s impractical to always have 20-foot wide roads. Schmitt said they’ve tried to suggest just adding more shoulders or widening roads — if meeting the county standards isn’t possible — but have not been successful.

Thomas, the county engineer, said the county takes the fire departments’ concerns into account when approving new buildings. In one case, along County 85, a developer was required to widen part of the road and have a pull-out for firefighters. 

(“The proposed modifications to the road, proposed by the builder, did not meet our needs. The county seemed fine with them although they were completely inadequate. (I’d call them a joke),” Honeyman said in an email.)

Some property owners oppose expanding access routes because they believe it would increase traffic and noise. 

The relationship between the county and fire departments has become more collaborative over the years, with a new planning official consulting the fire chiefs more frequently, says Chris O’Brien, chief of the Lefthand Fire Protection District. 

There are limits on what the county can do, he says. 

Still, there are a number of rugged roads throughout the Boulder County foothills that could become evacuation routes. They are currently unusable.

That’s the case in Gibson’s Four Mile fire department, south of Schmitt’s district and including the communities of Salina and Summerville. There’s one main road and one escape route: A rugged U.S. Forest Service road that is impassable when there is snow — leaving residents one way in and out six months out of the year. An old mining road and other paths out of the district have been closed off by the county or blocked by landowners, Gibson says. 

Gibson says he’s for years faced resistance from the county to adding fire-protection requirements. 

Opposition has started to thaw in the past five years but mainly for one approach, he says: Using ignition-resistant construction materials and landscaping to prevent a home from catching fire.

Those are easy fixes, Gibson says, akin to pouring asphalt roads that last 10 to 20 years instead of more durable and expensive concrete roads. 

“It allows you to act like you’re doing something proactive, but you’re not taking in the whole picture, you’re not looking at the long run,” he says. 

Honeyman, the retired fire marshal, said there’s a saying among fire officials: “Adapt and overcome.” 

“So, OK, we’ll adapt what we’re doing. We’ll try to find a way to deal with this,” he says, “but I think the county relies on us doing that.” 

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023. Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma