Within the next four or five years and if all goes according to plan, residents of Mountain Valley will have a higher sense of safety because of their neighborhood’s lower risk for wildfires.

The subdivision’s homeowners, seeing the disaster and heartbreak wildfires have brought on communities in Maui and California and, closer to home in Boulder, have joined forces with Holy Cross Energy in a project they believe will eliminate a major source of wildfires: overhead utility lines.

“We can look to Boulder, we can look to California, we can look to Maui and we can look to Texas,” said Evan Boenning, a resident of Mountain Valley since May 1989. Boenning lives in one of the neighborhood’s more than 130 residences — a combination of single-family homes and duplexes. “And the one thing we all understand is the biggest threat to us in Aspen is going to be a wildfire and it’s just going to roar, get sucked up the valley, go right up the hill.”







Cover Sunday

Holy Cross removes some utility poles from the Mountain Valley subdivision on Feb. 5 as part of a project that involves undergrounding all of the neighborhood’s overhead utility lines. Downed and sparked overhead utility lines have been the sources of catastrophic wildfires in Maui, Texas, California and closer to home in Colorado. 

 




The common denominator in those historic fires nning cited? They originated, either partly or fully, from downed and sparked power lines. 

The Camp Fire that wiped Paradise off of the California map in November 2017 was due to vegetation sparked by a transmission line during extreme dry conditions. Downed and sparked power lines have been cited as ignitors of the August 2023 fire in Maui and the Smokehouse Creek Fire in Texas in February. Authorities determined that the December 2021 Marshall fire in Boulder, the most destructive in Colorado history (two people killed, more than 1,000 homes destroyed) originated from two sources fanned by high winds — embers from a six-day old wood fire and a sparking power line.

Those blazes and others have hit close to home for residents of Mountain Valley, a near fully built-out neighborhood dotted with utility poles and power lines, surrounded by vegetation, and perched roughly 8,000 feet high in a dry climate. 

The neighborhood, which is located just outside of Aspen city limits, has had some close calls over the years with wildfires but has generally been spared. They also saw what happened in Basalt with the Lake Christine Fire in July 2018 — a nearly 13,000-acre blaze that charred the mountainside, destroyed three homes and tinkered on a much greater catastrophe that failed to materialize because of shifting winds at the last minute. Utility lines were not the cause of the Lake Christine Fire; two people using rifles to fire tracer ammunition at a shooting range in Basalt were to blame. 

“The reality of what we’re feeling as a neighborhood up here in Mountain Valley on the upper east side of Aspen is that fire danger is very real, that everything we read and know and hear about fire danger in the West, fire danger continues to increase and we think that’s going to continue happening,” said Kenny Smith, who like nning has been active on the HOA board. “And the No. 1 thing we can do here — there are certain things we can’t do to protect ourselves — but the No. 1 thing we decided we could do is remove all of our overhead power lines in our neighborhood.”

Unlike the rapidly spreading wildfires they are trying to prevent, bringing the plan to fruition has been a more deliberate task for the neighborhood, which is approaching its 60th year of incorporation — it was formed in 1965 and is situated off of Highway 82, toward Independence Pass, and borders Aspen city limits. 

Last summer, in 2023, excavation work began, the project’s first phase. 

“The digging was unbelievable,” Boenning recalled. “The boulders we encountered, and how we had to be careful with vegetation and trees.”

In January, another project milestone was achieved — the first of the power lines started to be physically cut down. 

“To get to that stage,” Smith said, “we had to go through a lot of engineering, planning and also undergrounding. This is considered hardening infrastructure, so by taking those overhead power lines and putting them underground, they are much less likely to malfunction that way and they are considered hardened, but before you can start cutting poles down, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done first.”







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Utility poles, lopped down in height, as seen at the Mountain Valley subdivision in March.  




Holy Cross sees value in investment

The neighborhood’s electricity provider is Holy Cross, which also services Aspen Airport Business Center, Hunter Creek, Red Mountain, Cemetery Lane and the base of Highlands. Holy Cross also leases its lines to other providers like Xfinity. The city of Aspen’s own utility powers the downtown core.

Electricity supplied by Holy Cross Energy isn’t just vital to keeping on just the lights, heat and other living essentials in the Mountain Valley residences — it also powers the water pump that serves the water tank located on the neighborhood’s upper level.

“In Mountain Valley,” Smith explained, “we have a gravity-fed water delivery system to our neighborhood that’s fed by a large tank that’s above our neighborhood. And that tank requires a pump and electricity to actually pump water up there to refill that tank, and that tank provides water to some fire hydrants in our neighborhood. 

“So that was kind of a double-edged sword: If fire were to take out our overhead power lines, which often happens in a fire, there would be no ability to deliver water to the tank that we would be actually using to fight fires, so it was another real sticky point for us and it was another thing that made us say, ‘Hey, what can we do about this?’”

Momentum kept building. The HOA board received the backing of Aspen Fire Protection District Chief Rick Balentine, who commended it in a March 2021 letter “for identifying and addressing concerns regarding hardening of infrastructure within your HOA” and taking a “proactive drive toward these improvements” to “reduce wildfire danger, harden infrastructure and build resiliency and redundancy in utilities or fire suppression systems.”

A resolution the HOA members adopted in August 2021 echoed that point, deeming the neighborhood’s power lines and poles “an unreliable source of power to the upper water pump that can be critical in fighting brush fires and fires in homes …” 

Voting members for each of the neighborhood’s 133 ownership interests — representing 79 single-family lots and 54 duplex lots —  agreed at that August meeting to pay an annual $1,500 special assessment that started in January 2022 and goes through 2036. The vote’s outcome wasn’t unanimous but it was clear what residents wanted —just nine members opposed the endeavor to remove approximately 1 mile of wiring and 25 to 30 utility poles. 

In a resolution adopted in September 2021, Mountain Valley’s HOA board agreed to take on a seven-figure line of credit to help fund the project, according to publicly available HOA documents.

David Bleakley, vice president of engineering at Holy Cross, said the power provider was approached by Mountain Valley residents about the possibility of a partnership. Everything lined up to make it happen, he said. 

“We looked at what’s the first risk — there are some maps that will say the fire risks are there,” he said. 







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Holding the ski poles is Mountain Valley resident Evan Boenning, who has served on his neighborhood’s HOA as a member and president, as last summer’s excavation project began. 




Mountain Valley is located in an area prone to high risk for fires, which doesn’t exactly make the subdivision uniquely situated, but “in this particular case there was a fire pump on the hill that was fed from an overhead line, so there was concern from the neighborhood, and us, that if a fire came through and took that out overhead line and didn’t pump water, that’s a bad deal,” Bleakley said. 

Holy Cross agreed to absorb the expenses mainly tied to labor and its expertise. 

Bleakley said, “The partnership is pretty simple: We do the design, because that’s obviously our world, and they provide the ditching, they provide the backfill, they buy the conduits and basically everything that’s needed to put the system underground. What our skin in this game is the electrical stuff — the transformers, the underground cables, all of the labor associated with pulling everything in and out.”

Holy Cross also considered its investment into the project to be worthwhile and justifiable to members of the rural electric co-op, Bleakley said. Holy Cross’s service territory covers 44,500 members living in the five-county region of Eagle, Garfield, Gunnison, Mesa and Pitkin.

The fire pump’s dependency on electricity was “something that’s out of the ordinary that would give us some justification because at the end of the day, we need to be able to stand up in front of somebody that lives in Battlement Mesa and say this is why we’re spending your money in Aspen. Conversely, we would need to make that same argument, this is why we’re spending the money in Battlement Mesa, to the person that lives in Aspen.”

The partnership is the first of its kind for Holy Cross, Bleakley said. 

“In the past, if somebody had an overhead system in place and somebody wants it underground, we would say ‘that’s fine but you have to pay for everything — that means all the ditching, all the conduit, the wire, the whole bit.’”

Though Mountain Valley is located in unincorporated Pitkin County, one of its overhead lines runs along the city-county boundary and affects 11 lots in Aspen city limits.

The city council in 2023 signed off on a supplemental budget request from its engineering department to commit up to $75,000 to the project, matched by $50,000 from the 11 lot owners on the city side. Mountain Valley properties also are on the city’s water/fire suppression system.

“Burial of this line helps correct a vulnerability in the fire suppression system, increasing fire safety for at least 100 homes in Mountain Valley and Knollwood/Eastwood/McSkimming roads area in Aspen,” said a city memo, which added that the money “would fund a part of the Mountain Valley overhead powerline burial project. The overhead line would be removed and replaced with a buried line within Mountain Laurel Drive. The remainder of the project costs will be funded by the Mountain Valley HOA, Holy Cross, and the various Aspen parcel homeowners directly impacted by the overhead lines.”

According to Bleakley, this type of project would have a more even financial partnership were it not for the concentrated Mountain Valley neighborhood’s challenging landscape — from the surrounding vegetation, to the rocky and rugged terrain, to heated driveways. 

“If you have a fully developed area with driveways, to put a ditch in there, it’s going to be expensive,” Bleakley said. “In their case, it’s probably more than a 50-50 split — heated driveways, stuff you have to bore underneath; the ditching part really goes up.”

California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has undertaken a program to underground 10,000 miles of power lines since mid-2021, and finished 350 miles in 2023, according to a company press release, which said that undergrounding “eliminates nearly 98% of the risk of wildfire ignition from electrical equipment.”

The current cost to the utility has dropped below $3 million per mile, the December press release said. Customers are paying for the project — their bills were expected to increase 12.8% this year and 1.8% in 2025 before dropping by 2.8% in 2026. 







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Mountain Valley resident Kenny Smith has been instrumental in the neighborhood’s project to lower the risk for wildfires and ease residents’ fears by placing all of the subdivision’s overhead utility lines underground. 

 




Rising insurance a motivator

According to a report commissioned by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies Division of Insurance and prepared by Oliver Wyman Actuarial Consulting Inc., homeowners’ premiums “have been increasing significantly in Colorado,” noting a 51.7% rise in the average homeowner premium between January 2019 and October, reflecting an annual rise of 11.5% 

“Rate changes (including more sophisticated handling of the wildfire peril), as well as inflation, appear to be the most likely drivers of those increases,” said the report. “Rate increases observed in Colorado are measurably higher than the countrywide average.”







Sunday Graphic

The Wildland-Urban Interface Risk Index, created by the Colorado State Forest Service, is a rating of the potential impact of a wildfire on people and their homes. It is created using housing density combined with modeled fire behavior to determine where the greatest potential impact to people and homes is likely to occur. The index is calculated consistently for each Colorado county, available at coloradoforestatlas.org. 




The report noted that while some carriers aren’t withdrawing from territories with high risk for wildfires, other carriers “are reporting non-renewal initiatives that target a small percentage of Colorado homes with the most extreme levels of wildfire risk, particularly in instances where loss mitigation measures have not been taken.”

That’s yet another reason why the project makes sense, Smith said. 

“First of all, everyone is concerned with fire danger,” he said. “Some things that had been trending are that it’s harder and harder to get fire-related homeowners insurance, not just in this neighborhood but in the West in general. But east Aspen neighborhoods have been seeing rates increasing and also carriers drop out and the reason that they are citing is fire danger, so obviously anything you can do as a homeowner or as an HOA to lessen that risk is something that you should tackle.”

Fonte