Fire and Flood Risks Rampant in Lower Ute Pass

Time running out for town survival

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

How do you defend a small community with limited resources against huge fire risks, highlighted by too many trees and vegetation, an abundance of burning fuels and little mitigation work over the last several decades?

And how do you contend with flood water from a city upstream that has shown little interest in floodplain assistance or cooperation?

Welcome to the fate of Green Mountain Falls, a small Ute Pass community that hopes to survive the next decade or so without burning up or getting submerged by floods.

“You are in a high-risk environment,” announced Chris Bockey, a senior environmental planner for the Logan Simpson company, based in Fort Collins, during a town meeting last week. The company is currently doing a $100,000 master plan project for Green Mountain Falls.

A central component of this project focuses on the first-ever comprehensive hazard mitigation plan for GMF and the lower Ute Pass area.

Bockey cited a bevy of challenges for GMF in defending itself from natural disasters, such as an abundance of vegetation and trees, little noticeable mitigation and limited resources. Plus, he contends that the town is heavily reliant on the city of Woodland Park for flood protection from Fountain Creek overflow rumblings

“We want to come up with options, and get some things implemented,” said Bockey at last week’s joint meeting of the GMF Board of Trustees and Planning Commission.

If such a development occurs, it will be a first for the GMF community that is well behind other communities in the area in grappling with disaster mitigation, despite the Waldo Canyon fire and a series of huge floods. The main missing ingredient has been money, not to mention an unstable political environment. The town has featured much political friction over the last six years, with constant fights over roads and public safety. 

As a result, fire and flood mitigation has often taken a back seat.


No Need for Mandatory Enforcement

Despite the huge challenges facing GMF, Bockey contends that the forthcoming plan will take a positive approach and won’t advocate mandatory rules and regulations. 

“We want to start out small and do things on a small-scale and have something manageable,” said Bockey who works in the company’s Arizona office.  He is quite familiar with some of huge blazes that have impacted Arizona, so understands what is at stake for GMF and what can realistically occur. 

 “You can’t mitigate for everything,” said Bockey, in response to a question last week about devising a  no-nonsense plan, with enforcement penalties. 

Moreover, the consultant believes the best step is to stress resident and homeowner cooperation.  “If a neighbor sees somebody doing mitigation on their property, that (work) could encourage them to do the same. We want this to be as positive as possible and have a fire-wise community.”

Even such small steps as cleaning out gutters could help brace the town for future disasters. Developing defensible areas around homes will serve as the main component for success, according to the environmental planner.

And with resident mitigation work, could come the prospects of grants, argues Bockey. He cites the importance of education in improving local mitigation efforts.

On the upside, the planner sees the small lots in GMF as a big bonus, making mitigation work much more manageable. On the downside, he says the area is saturated with way too much flammable vegetation and fuel level. 


A Town at Risk

Bockey doesn’t disguise the fact that GMF is at serious risk, and it wouldn’t take much for the community to ignite in flames. Even the turning of the wind the wrong way could pose a definite disaster. He cites a huge preponderance of dangerous “ladder fuels,” (in layman’s terms this represent high grass, dead trees and vegetation) enabling fires to spread fast in the Ute Pass.

 Emergency access is another key component of the hazard mitigation plan.  As part of their master plan effort, Logan Simpson will do a vegetation map and outline previous mitigation projects.

While much of the upcoming master plan focuses on the loves and dislikes of local residents, the hazard migration aspect could represent where the “rubber meets the road,”  playing a key role in community survival.

Dick Bratton, the local project coordinator, says this is the first time the community has addresses this issue in their master plan updates, done every 10 years.  Prior to the Waldo Canyon fire, hazard mitigation was practically unheard of in the lower Ute Pass.