HARTSEL, Colo. - Tucked in the mountains of rural Colorado, a marijuana migration has brought hundreds looking for cheap land and little regulation.
But now, first responders are concerned the new campers could be on the verge of a crisis.
The new settlers might still be unnoticed if it hadn’t been for the shooting last November at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.
The investigation of the self-proclaimed shooter, Robert Dear, and his RV in Park County exposed hundreds of others living off-the-grid and in potentially dangerous conditions.
“This could be a life and death situation,” said Monte Gore, the Park County Undersheriff. “We would be negligent if we didn’t do something.”
Which is why Gore and Hartsel Fire Chief Jay Hutcheson took Denver7 Reporter Jaclyn Allen on a tour to see the danger hidden in plain sight.
"That little encampment out there, that was a marijuana grow place,” said Hutcheson, pointing down an unpaved path. “That's part of your Green Rush."
When Hutcheson first started counting the new marginal dwellings cropping up everywhere, he had no idea the scope of the growth.
"The first time I drove the area, I counted 287 (non-conforming homes) just on that one (50-mile) loop," said Hutcheson, who counted camping trailers, Tough Sheds and even tents as non-conforming homes.
While many neighbors are concerned about the effect on property values, as fire chief what worries Hutcheson most are the makeshift chimneys coming from wood-fired stoves inside RVs.
“They could die of carbon monoxide poisoning. They could burn the place down," said Hutcheson, pointing to chimneys coming from RVs in a field. "What I don't want to find is deceased people in the spring."
But Logan Anoll really isn’t worried about the makeshift chimney coming from his 1979 Airstream travel trailer.
He and his friends moved here eight months ago from Atlanta.
“We actually burn coal out here because wood is not hot enough to cut it,” he said, while breaking up a large chunk of coal.
In Park County, some realtors are marketing to a "marijuana migration," Gore said. They are promising cheap land with little regulation, he said.
Anoll bought 10 acres for less than $10,000 – with no power, sewer or water.
“I mean the view is truly spectacular, and the people are amazing,” said Anoll. ”If you needed any help out here they'd come running."
But first responders say it’s not that simple.
In 2008, Park County declared a state of emergency during a blizzard that left some trapped for weeks.
If that happens now, hundreds of people living off-grid could be one major storm from needing rescue.
“When we saw all the homes around Robert Dear’s trailer, it opened our eyes to the scope of the problem,” said Gore. “We have to do something.”
County officials are now working to strengthen lax zoning codes for camping, hiring two new code enforcement officers and designating four detectives for marijuana enforcement.
"Everybody wants to make a dollar," said Detective John Pinder, one of the detectives now investigating illegal greenhouses all over the county. “But they don’t bother to find out the rules before they come.”
Hutcheson said he has had several calls to these marginal dwellings for carbon monoxide concerns, and he gives away free fire alarms and carbon monoxide detectors at the fire house.
He is also trying to make sure everyone has an address, so if there is an emergency he knows where to go.
“It’s kind of a perfect storm,” said Hutcheson, who is worried people lured by the beauty and freedom of the mountains may be taking dangerous risks. “Some of these people I want to take them and shake them because what they are doing could mean the end of them.”