Recovery in mountain housing carries risks

Mountain homes help economy, make forest fires riskier
Oct. 06, 2013 @ 08:40 AM

Northern Caldwell County once again may be seeing a housing boom.

That's good news for the county's tax revenue, but it also means that future forest fires in the mountains could become more dangerous and expensive to fight.

The boom is being fuled in large part by people who want to be in the Blowing Rock area but are looking for more affordable options, Caldwell Tax Administrator Monty Woods said. At one new development about a mile off Richland Road and overlooking the Yadkin Valley, Timber Rock, all but 14 of the 104 lots, ranging from one to 15 acres, have been sold so far.

Once construction starts, the property value of a lot climbs rapidly, Woods said. The value jumps 25 percent just from septic, water and electrical connections going in. The one completed home at Timber Rock was assessed at $526,000 and was put on the market with an asking price of $600,000, Woods said.

"That area is more attractive for developers, " Woods said. "It will also help the Patterson Fire Department and will increase the county's tax base."

A hidden cost of such residential development, though, will come into play if the area is hit by a forest fire in the future: The more houses are in those mountains, the harder and more dangerous to firefighters it will be to try to stop the fire.

It is not a new issue, but the economic slowdown put the brakes on new housing.

Timber Rock evolved from the original Saddle Creek subdivision, later known as Grandfather Vistas. The project came to a screeching halt in 2006, according to current land developer Ray Short of Mooresville, sending the property into receivership. Short bought it, then sold the entire project to the Waterfront Group out of Cornelius. His construction company, Lake Luxury Homes, is building the houses.

Fighting a wilderness fire, with or without houses nearby, is basically the same: Firefighters work to cut a firebreak -- an area where undergrowth and debris are cut away and removed -- ahead of the fire so that when the flames reach it, the lack of fuel will stop or at least slow down the fire.

Firefighting in mountainous areas is more challenging. Rugged, steep terrain can make it difficult to build fire breaks, and flames can race up hillsides.

Plop some houses into the landscape, and it adds a new wrinkle: the need to protect residents and, if possible, keep flames off of those houses, said Rusty Dellinger, with the N.C. Forest Service. Firefighters call it wildlife urban interface, defined as areas where homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire.

"You have gas and electrical lines, and the residents themselves, who may have to be evacuated," Dellinger said.

"Our first priority is life-saving, with evacuations if needed, then we can start stabilizing the incident by gaining control of the wildfire."

One example is the fire in 2009 that threatened the Falcon Crest development in Blowing Rock. All of the volunteer departments in Caldwell County responded to the call, mainly to protect the homes threatened by the fire, said Patterson Fire Chief Reggie Ford.

"That fire was one of the largest urban interface fires we've had in a long time," Ford said. "It was in such close proximity to the houses in that development. You need one engine truck for each structure. There, we had 30-plus houses, and needed 30 engines. Every department in Caldwell County responded."