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Dear Editor,

The recent wildfire in Boulder County rang a loud alarm bell for homeowners living in grasslands at the urban-wilderness interface to risks associated with wildfires in Colorado. Nearly 1,000 homes and businesses were lost in that conflagration. It also raised awareness of the very large risks posed to homes along County Road 190 by campfires associated with the proposed Aspire Tours campground.

These concerns were first raised by residents during a public meeting in July 2020, but have been overshadowed by road, water, and zoning issues until now. Boulder was a painful wake-up call that demands all of our attention.

We urge the Planning and Zoning Commissioners to take the following facts into consideration during their deliberations on Aspire Tour’s application on January 25, 2022:

  • Campfires are responsible for nearly 75 percent of all wildfires nationwide.
  • A large expanse of desiccated grassland is all that separates the Aspire Tours property from over 50 homes between the Arkansas River to the West and Highway 291 to the East.
  • Aspire Tours has proposed to have at least one campfire ring to be managed by its staff. Given the likely expectations their guests will pay large sums of money for deluxe camping. experiences, we can assume that at least one campfire will burn every night during the peak tourist season between May and August.
  • The wind in this area consistently blows from West to East and can reach similar wind speeds as those experienced during the Boulder wildfire, placing all downwind homes in harm’s way.
  • According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Chaffee County frequently experiences Moderate, Severe, and Extreme drought conditions particularly between May and August; prime conditions for wildfires.
  • The response time for emergency vehicles (fire trucks and ambulances) to arrive at the Aspire Tours site would likely be about 20 minutes. As shown in Boulder, a wildfire traveling at 300 feet per minute (one football field) could consume everything within 6,000 feet of the Aspire Tours property before the first fire truck arrived. By this time, the Cole home, the Grayhawk Subdivision, and the proposed Peak View Subdivision could be consumed, and flames would be at the doorstep of the Las Colinas Subdivision.
  • With only one road for both ingress and egress, plus a blind hill paired with a narrowing of the road, desperate evacuees would compete with emergency response vehicles for use of the only escape route. The narrow width of County Road 190 where it passes over the Sunny Side ditch would not allow firetrucks entering the area to pass abreast of Sprinter vans (loaded with Aspire’s guests) and RV’s evacuating the area. Moreover, the mountains of dried Russian Thistle, recently excavated from the Sunny Side ditch and left piled on the roadside, will become giant mounds of tinder flanking the narrowest section of the evacuation route. One accident at this pinch point, such as a vehicle falling in the ditch (a four-foot drop without a guardrail), could easily bottleneck, delay or prevent emergency response teams from accessing the fire.
  • Both Aspire and Peak View Subdivision have opted out of constructing on-site fire cisterns on their properties. All water to fight the fire will come from tanker water brought in by the fire department or the small cistern owned by Grayhawk.
  • On April 25, 2020, the Aspire Tours owners and friends had campfires on the property during Stage 2 fire restrictions. The sheriff was called at 8:17 p.m., and showed up sometime later. Was this an isolated event or an indication of the level of regard that Aspire Tours will give to future fire bans?

Given these facts, the residents of County Road 190 beseech the Chaffee County Planning and Zoning Commissioners to place additional conditions on the Aspire Tours application with respect to campfire use and wildfire prevention in order to avoid a worst-case scenario:

  • Prepare a Fire Prevention Plan which requires annual staff training in fire prevention and fire fighting, plus purchase appropriate personal protection equipment and fire fighting equipment.
  • Prepare a Fire Response Plan which includes:
    1. Fire alarm communication plan to notify adjacent residents and the fire department;
    2. A detailed evacuation plan and route;
    3. Disconnection and securing of all above-ground propane tanks;
    4. Annual drills to practice both fire fighting and evacuation of guests, performed in collaboration with adjacent residents.
  • Quantify the volume of water required to fight such a fire and the volume of water available on site to fight a fire. Identify where the remaining water will be sourced.
  • Review and approval of the above plans by the both Chaffee County Safety and Chaffee County Fire Department.
  • Update the Water Adequacy Plan to account for water used during campfire maintenance, fire fighting, and the practice of fire fighting.
  • Received a legally-binding commitment by Aspire Tours to monitor and comply with all open fire restrictions and bans posted for Chaffee County by both the County and the National Forest Service for San Isabelle National Forest.
  • Require that Aspire Tours hold sufficient liability insurance to compensate adjacent homeowners for all damages associated with a wildfire originating from a poorly managed campfire originating on the Aspire property. In the absence of County oversight, this is the only tool available to incentivize Aspire Tours to complete these activities.

The Boulder County fire has taught us that the combination of desiccating weather patterns with commercial growth at the urban-wilderness interface can be a recipe for disaster. We ask that the Chaffee County Planning and Zoning Commission execute the authority of their position to require the proper management of campfires plus the planning and mitigation of wildfire risks so that a similar disaster can be avoided here in Chaffee County.

Sincerely yours,

Dr. Devin Castendyk

Resident of rural Salida and member of the County Road 190 Initiative