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Mountain realities: Wildlife, water, winter, winds and wildfires pose challenges, but there’s wonder, too

A moose visits a home in the hills near Rollinsville. Learning to live with animals, including moose, elk, deer, mountain lions and bears, are just one of the differences between living in the mountains and the city that potential buyers should consider. (Timmy Duggan / Courtesy photo)
A moose visits a home in the hills near Rollinsville. Learning to live with animals, including moose, elk, deer, mountain lions and bears, are just one of the differences between living in the mountains and the city that potential buyers should consider. (Timmy Duggan / Courtesy photo)
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Flatlanders choosing to make a home in the mountains enter a land of beauty and solitude — but also one with its own often unique set of risks and rules.

Like this one.

“Bears know how to open car doors up here,” said Josh Harrod, a broker at Re/Max Alliance in Nederland. “So if you like to eat in your car and there’s a half-eaten granola bar on your front seat, park facing downhill, so if a bear smells the food and opens the door, it’ll stay open so the bear can get out again.”

Wildlife, water, winter, winds, Wi-Fi and especially wildfire pose their own set of challenges for folks living in Boulder County’s foothills, and real estate agents aren’t shy about warning newcomers about the realities of mountain living. But they’re also quick to add the seventh “W” — the wonders that surround a home in the hills.

Disasters in the county’s high country such as the 2013 floods and the 2020 wildfires get a lot of media attention, but Laura Levy, a broker who leads Coldwell Banker’s Laura Levy Group in Lyons, noted that it’s wise to “balance this with common sense. In between these events, mountain living is peaceful and serene and worth it. You just have to be understanding of what you’re getting into.

”I can usually tell if people are OK to take some of those inconveniences on,” she said. “Some end up thinking maybe this isn’t for me. It’s a romantic vision, but maybe I don’t want to live with the realities.”

But one reality she stresses is that “this isn’t Siberia. It takes me the same time to get from my home in the mountains down to a town as it does to get from north Boulder to south Boulder.”

Timmy Duggan, a broker associate with the Boulder Property Network at Re/Max of Boulder who specializes in high-country homes, noted that a lot of foothills properties “only just bought two or three years ago” are on the market again because “it seemed like a good idea at the time.

“I try not to sugarcoat the realities of any property,” he said. “Each one has its own inherent risk, pros and cons that buyers need to learn about, especially if they hadn’t lived in the mountains.”

Those risks were brought home in 2020 with a series of devastating wildfires along Colorado’s northern Front Range, including the Cameron Peak Fire that scorched a huge swath of Larimer County, the East Troublesome Fire that jumped the Continental Divide from Grand County through Rocky Mountain National Park and forced the evacuation of Estes Park, and two blazes that came close to Boulder itself — the Calwood and Lefthand Canyon fires.

The 2020 wildfire season, which included the Calwood Fire that burned in the mountains above Boulder and Lyons, raised awareness of one of the bigger risks that people considering living in the foothills and mountains should weigh before buying. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Those fires sharpened the area’s attention to what extra building codes might be imposed and enforced in the Wildland Urban Interface, the zone where the forest meets neighborhoods.

Last month, the town of Lyons’ Fire Mitigation Task Force recommended that the town enact a WUI code. The entire town of Nederland, which had a close brush with the Cold Springs Fire of 2016, was deemed to be part of the WUI because of its size, location, vegetation and constant winter winds, and received assistance in 2020 from the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program, which is funded by grants from the U.S. Forest Service and private foundations and works with communities to reduce wildfire risks through improved land use planning.

Nederland recently approved a new building code, which Duggan said “also requires interior fire sprinklers. “I think that’s unfortunate because it adds significant expense to building anything new at a time when the town says it’s trying to keep things affordable,” he said. “We’ve got fire hydrants everywhere, and fire trucks. It’s different than in remote areas in unincorporated Boulder County.”

New construction in those unincorporated areas faces updated standards as well, Harrod said, including fire-resistant roofing and siding as well as at least three feet of gravel around the perimeter of any structure — a revelation for out-of-staters who pictured pines growing next to or even surrounded by their decks.

Boulder County Wildfire Partners, a county program that helps homeowners understand the building codes, can be a big help, he said. “People can contact Wildfire Partners and have them come out and get the property certified. Insurance companies like that, but they won’t offer a discount because it’s just Boulder County based.”

Insurance rates “are definitely on an upward trend, and certain carriers won’t insure mountain properties any more,” Harrod said. “Or they’ll send somebody out to look every couple years or so, and if they see a tree against your roof they’ll say you need to take that out. I know of folks whose provider has dropped them after several years because of the risk.”

Melody Loar with Peak Performance Real Estate in Nederland agreed.

“Not all insurance companies will insure up here,” she said. “Some agents can write only so many in areas with high fire danger. Then you have to look for other companies, and they’re going to be more expensive.”

That leads to some painful decisions, she said

“To get insurance, you’re probably going to have to take some trees down,” Loar said. “Some buyers don’t like it when I point out which ones are going to have to go.

“No insurance, no loan. Insurance is a big deal around here.”

Loar said the type of vegetation on a property makes a difference in fire mitigation as well.

“Normally, they want trees at least 30 feet away from the house, but if it’s aspens, they can be closer,” she said “Ground cover like juniper bushes should be at least 30 feet away as well because they collect leaves and needles. That’s a great little fire starter.

“You might get away with limbing up a ponderosa pine, but you’ll have to work with your insurance agent.”

The trick is for homeowners to keep mitigating their property, she said. “If trees die, you move them away. And you don’t want firewood stacks next to your house.

“Insurance comes up every couple years to check your property, and they could drop you.”

Even so, Duggan said, “I’ve never had a problem for myself or my clients finding an adequate policy. Rates change from year to year, disaster to disaster, but it’s not like they’re suddenly twice as expensive. You just have to make sure you’re getting the coverage you think you’re getting.”

Sometimes all the mitigation isn’t enough, Duggan said.

“It’s the nature of a hillside to have dense vegetation,” he said. “If there’s a fire there above your house, there’s not a lot you can do even if you do everything you can on your property.”

Levy noted that “a flood event and what it pays for is different than a fire event. If it’s a flood, did the water come from the ground or the sky?”

Realtor Timmy Duggan, who specializes in representing properties in Nederland and other high-country areas, says each mountain home comes with its own unique set of pros and cons that buyers should weigh carefully before making an offer. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Risk of flooding

Whether flooding is a risk or an inconvenience in the foothills depends on a home’s location.

“There’s a reason why there’s two beautiful canyons” above Lyons, Levy said. “Water carved them. Occasionally, we have to get out of nature’s way.”

During and after the September 2013 deluge, she said, “Lyons became the poster child, with so much damage in the heart of town. A lot of people didn’t appreciate the risk until that happened. Here’s these little quaint mountain streams that are dormant most of the year until there’s a runoff. People didn’t appreciate how they can become raging torrents with enough rainfall that sits and parks over our areas.

“Since then, we’ve been really educating and making sure people understand” and talk with the town and county and review the Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, she said. “What do they mean to that particular buyer? One thing it could mean is that they probably can’t put in berms that elevate the land, maybe not even a chicken coop, because they don’t want there to be any issue of flow of water being diverted and damaging other people’s property.”

Levels of insurance could differ as well if a property is located in a 100-year or 500-year designated flood zone, Levy said. “It’s all about insurance agents matching people with the right insurance depending on where they are.”

She said a good resource is the United Policy Holders website at uphelp.org, where homeowners can find worksheets and tips for preparedness.

Although Jamestown was hit hard by the 2013 flooding, towns such as Rollinsville, Nederland, Ward and Allenspark along the Peak to Peak Highway generally find floods less of a threat and more of a hassle.

“That’s one of the perks of living at the top of the hill,” Harrrod said. “In 2013, it just meant a longer drive to get down to Boulder while they were working on the roads to restore access.”

In towns such as Nederland, Duggan added, “there’s not that much vertical above you. But lower down, getting out in the event of a flood could be tougher at the bottom of a canyon. It could affect your access or egress.”

Winter challenges

Besides a lengthy snow season, winter provides its own unique annoyance for towns along the Peak to Peak Highway, Harrod said.

“Winters can get challenging, especially with the ‘breeze.’ We can get hurricane-force winds that last for days and 40 miles-per-hour winds for weeks on end.”

Those biting gales can create property damage, but more often simply lead to cabin fever.

Those winds sweep down from the Continental Divide. Home buyers are willing to pay more for the view of those lofty peaks to the west, but Loar reminds her clients, “If you see the view, the wind sees you.”

She also tells them they’ll get far less sun because of the surrounding slopes.

“The winter commute can pose some challenges, too,” Harrod said. “Snow days in the canyon can definitely test you.” He said the Colorado Department of Transportation “actually does a good job of plowing Boulder Canyon, but even in Nederland, proper plow trucks might not get to you for a couple days.”

That’s a good thing for a prospective home buyer to know, the real estate agents agreed: Who’s responsible for plowing the roads to your property? The state? The county? The homeowners’ association? You?

“Not all roads are county maintained,” Loar said. “Is there an agreement or will you have to do it yourself? If it’s you, do you have a plow truck?”

Harrod said roads on school-bus routes tend to get plowed first. “If your road is on a school bus route, it tends to get plowed first,” Harrod said. “If not,” he added, “it could be a couple hours before snowplows hit your road.”

“You’re responsible for some of those things more than you would be in a city,” Levy added.

A more remote location would require a longer commute to get to work or shopping in a town, especially in winter, but Loar noted an advantage.

“The farther out you get, the less expensive, in housing price as well as taxes,” she said. “A lot of people may not want  to commute that far, but the plus side is that they can afford more of a house.”

Dwellers in homes such as this one in the foothills near Lyons can live amid magnificent scenery, but the tradeoff is losing out on conveniences that come with living in a more urban area. (Laura Levy / Courtesy photo)

Cell & internet service

A commute to the Front Range urban corridor may not be much of an issue if a buyer plans to work from home. To do that though, cellular service and high-speed internet are required. Both can be hard to come by.

“There’s places where that exists and where it doesn’t,” Duggan said, and Loar added that cellular service “works great in some places but not in others. It’s not like being down where it’s flat.”

Most of the internet service in unincorporated foothills areas is what Harrod called “mountain fast” – in other words, he added, “it’s enough for a Zoom call, but if they have to transfer huge files, it may not happen.” If that need arises in the Nederland area, he said, they can visit HubNet and send files for a nominal fee.

Levy said there are “pockets of high speed along Boulder Canyon” interspersed with dead zones. Along U.S. 36, however, she added, a locally owned company, X-Bar-J, is “trenching fiberoptic up toward Estes Park. They’re about halfway done and should have it all the way by the middle of this year, and then they’ll bring that fiber off 36 and into some of those mountain neighborhoods.”It’s yet another thing for prospective mountain homeowners to research, the brokers agreed.

“Find out what speed is available and how much it costs,” Levy said, “because it can vary by neighborhood and can be really spotty.

“Still, at the end of the day, unless they’re working for NASA, they can get high-speed enough,” Levy said. “No, it’s not as lightning fast as people in the cities are used to, but it works just fine and is usually sufficient.”

It’s not the city

Small, locally owned grocery stores are available in mountain towns such as Lyons and Nederland, and delivery services serve more remote areas. Cable television isn’t available outside of towns in the foothills, Levy said, but “most people are streaming anyway through smart TVs, their computer, or satellite services like Dish or Direct TV.”

Paramedics can be summoned by one of the numerous volunteer fire departments scattered through the hills, Levy said.

“One of the most wonderful things up here is our incredible volunteer firefighters,” she said. “They know all the streets and where everybody lives. If you drive up Sunshine Canyon, you can see fire stations around. We always encourage people to volunteer; it’s important for them to get to know their neighbors so they can watch out for each other.”

For delivery or emergency services to find addresses of houses set back from the roads, Levy said, “people are encouraged to have roads or driveways marked with street numbers.”

The nearest hospitals are in Boulder, Longmont or Estes Park, but Harrod said Flight for Life helicopters are common sights.

“Up at Eldora Ski Area, it seems a couple times a year somebody is getting medivac’d out of there,” he said. “Sometimes that can be challenging because of the winds, but those pilots are pretty phenomenal and have landed up here in some pretty tenuous situations.”

Basic utilities are a consideration as well.

“In a city, you turn on a faucet, and water just comes out,” Levy said. “Up here, you need to know how your septic system works, and your well. You need to go in with eyes wide open. If you can’t deal with some of that, mountain living might not be for you.”

Marmots and other mountain-dwelling creatures use the late-summer months to store food for the long winters, and mountain-dwelling humans could take a hint from them.

“It’s always good to plan ahead,” said Levy, who lives in the foothills above Lyons. “We’re usually buying firewood in summer, filling our propane tank, thinking about what we’ll need in the winter. You’re going to feel the seasonality more than you would in an urban area.”

“We even have flatland Realtors that come up here and have no clue about wells and septic systems,” Loar added. “They don’t know you’re not supposed to use bleach with a septic system.”

Wells should be tested every once in a while to ensure the water is potable, and propane tanks should be tested for leaks, Levy said.

“When people live in a city, they’re used to everything working and don’t need to know why,” Levy said. “In the mountains, they need to know why. They can’t just set it and forget it.”

Watch out for the moose

A big draw to living in the foothills is watching deer, elk and other animals.

“People find it wonderful — like living in a park or a wildlife preserve,” Levy said. But some obvious hazards lurk there as well, and the agents differed on which animal is more dangerous.

“Watch out for the moose,” Duggan said. “A recent listing I saw put in the broker comments for agents showing it said, ‘Watch out for moose on the property. If you or your client don’t know how to act around moose, this isn’t the property for you.’

“Moose are by far more dangerous,” Duggan said. “A bear’s going to run away from you.”

Harrod recounted the tale of a person in Nederland last year who tried to pet a moose, adding “I think he got lucky.”

“Moose? I just shoo them away from my lilac bushes,” Loar said

Moose, elk, bears, coyotes and mountain lions are “a reality of living where we live,” Harrod said. “Encounters with humans are rare, though. If people are smart about it, they can stay fairly safe.”

But again, common sense applies, he said. “Don’t leave your dog out at night; there’s a possibility they’re going to be a meal.”

Joggers at night should be aware of mountain lions, Loar said, “and you want to watch your kids if they’re out there at night, too. Predators hunt at night.”

The key to living in bear country, Levy said, is being a responsible neighbor.

“Don’t put garbage out or things that are going to entice them in. Make it safe for you and them,” she said. “I’ve had only one bear problem and it was my fault and I learned quickly.”

Loar added that bears “will bust through your garage door if your trash starts smelling.”

Once all the challenges of mountain living are assessed, Levy said, a homeowner’s goal should be to be “as prepared as you can be. That’s where you want to end up.

“At the end of the day, it’s still a desirable thing to do to move to Colorado and live in the foothills,” she said. “Any time you go into nature, you have to be prepared for it. It’s a wonderful, beautiful lifestyle that has its benefits and inconveniences.

“I was in a Chinook helicopter in 2013” to flee the flooding “and have been evacuated two or three times since then,” she said, “but you couldn’t drag me out of here.”

Residents in the foothills and mountains must think of how to be good neighbors to more than just their fellow humans: Moose, elk and deer can attack when they feel threatened, while bears will raid easily accessible trash and mountain lions will pick off pets when it’s dark for easy meals. (Dan Bowers / For the Camera)

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