Thursday, August 24, 2000
Steamboat Springs City Council President Kevin Bennett remains hopeful the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County can work together to reshape the way wildland fires are fought in the rural areas surrounding the city. But Bennett says the county commissioners will have to come up with some cash to make it happen.
"In order to continue to offer city resources in a wildland fire situation, we need to have a regional plan that embraces the regional problem. They've got to start helping to pay," Bennett said. "They've got to be at the table and I quite frankly think they will."
Bennett was reacting to the news that County Commissioners Nancy Stahoviak and Dan Ellison declined last week to budget for the purchase of a special fire truck for fighting wildland fires and a 20-person crew to make the first attacks on fire during the summer season.
Fire chiefs from seven districts in Routt County asked the commissioners for help in fighting nonstructural fires in rural areas. The seven districts are members of the Wildland Fire Council, and work together under a memorandum of understanding. However, there are strong signs the city of Steamboat Springs Fire Department, the largest of the seven, will pull out of the council if county government doesn't become more directly involved.
Steamboat Fire Chief Bob Struble, together with City Manager Paul Hughes and Public Safety Director J.D. Hays, recommended to City Council in January that the city withdraw from fighting nonstructural fires outside the city limits beginning in January 2001. That recommendation would not affect existing mutual aid agreements under which the various fire departments come to each other's assistance when buildings are burning.
Struble told City Council that when his crews respond to brush fires, they leave the city without adequate coverage. If they get called to a motor vehicle accident outside the city, the situation becomes even more serious.
Struble's recommendation came after the fire season of 1999, considered to be an unusually busy one with 44 wildfires. Those numbers from last summer pale in comparison to the more than 83 wildfires that have already broken out this year.
Bennett said City Council is looking at the situation based on three positions. The first is that under Colorado law, it is the statutory responsibility of Routt County Sheriff John Warner to fight wildland fires in the county. The second, Bennett said, is that the city wants to continue to work as a partner with regional government within the context of the first statement. Third, however, Bennett said the city believes its primary responsibility is to the residents of Steamboat Springs.
"When we are talking about potentially jeopardizing our area of coverage to cover wildland fires, it's an enormous responsibility," Bennett said. The biggest issue in City Council's collective minds, Bennett said, is the availability of service when a fire breaks out within the city limits.
City Councilman Bud Romberg agreed with Bennett that the city's first obligation has to be to its residents. He pointed out that discussions leading to a new agreement with the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Department highlighted how firefighting resources are being stretched thin by growth inside the city and just outside its boundaries in the fire protection district.
"Providing service to the citizens of the city has to come first," Romberg said. "If there's not enough equipment and personnel when the city is fighting fires outside its limits. I think it's a difficult situation.".
Growth in the area contributes to the wildland fire problems in two ways, Romberg said.
First, the increasing number of homes in rural ares increases the potential for wildland fire to burn more than just grass, brush and trees, he said.
"With more people living in more homes out there, it changes the dynamic," Romberg said.
Second, the increasing numbers of homes, multi-family residential units and commercial buildings within the city increase the demand on the city fire department to meet its primary obligations.