City, county smolder over fire issue

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— A county commissioner accused the city of "taking its ball and going home" Thursday in regards to the city's decision to opt out of the Wildland Fire Council as of next year if the county does not meet the city's demands for equipment and personnel.
"They should be at the table working through these community issues," said County Commissioner Ben Beall. "Fire protection is one of the basic needs of this community. We should be able to work through this."
The City Council, beseeched by the county to ease its hard-line approach to the fire issue, decided Tuesday night that it had waited long enough for the commissioners to act on its demands.
"The truth is the city has grown to the point that we cannot afford to stretch ourselves anymore," Councilman Jim Engelken said.
To stay part of the memorandum of understanding, the city is requesting that the county pay for one type 2 fire engine and three part-time firefighters who would be employed for the next three years, Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Bob Struble said.
Struble said he is worried that wildland fire suppression puts the residents of Steamboat in danger by pulling firefighters away from the city to fight wildland fires.
Wildland Fire Council members fight fires in the rural areas around their fire protection districts, providing initial suppression efforts.
The city is reimbursed for any expenses it incurs from fighting fires in the county but does use its own equipment and personnel to fight the fires.
Struble said the city has 28 volunteer firefighters, not all of whom show up to every fire alarm.
If the county does not agree to purchase the engine and the manpower to aid the city's fire department in fighting these wildland fires, the city is prepared to write letters to each of the remaining fire districts involved in wildland fire suppression indicating its decision to opt out by Dec. 15.
Those districts may have to find a way to pick up the city's slack as of next year.
If the city does not officially opt out by Dec. 15, it will be understood as a decision to stay in the fire council for another year, City Manager Paul Hughes said.
The city can rejoin the fire council at any time after Dec. 15 if the city and county can come to an agreement, Hughes said.
"The thing that makes me comfortable is that we can always go back on board," Engelken said.
The County Commission and City Council are planning to hold a joint meeting on Dec. 14, but the wildland fire issue is not on the agenda, Beall said.
The commissioners do not expect to know what they will decide to do until Dec. 18, when they will be meeting with representatives from the Wildland Fire Council, who will present them with a final draft of their report on the issue, Beall said. The county is also unsure of where to find the money for the added equipment and personnel.
"If the resources and money do not come from the county, where does it come from?" asked County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak. Stahoviak called council members before their most recent Tuesday meeting to urge them to rethink their position.
While council members did heed the commissioner's words, they were not prepared to recant their threat.
Councilman Ken Brenner said that if the commissioners are truly interested in keeping the city in the agreement, they ought to dip into their reserves and buy the necessary equipment.
By statute, the county is responsible for wildland fire suppression, but the sheriff has relied on fire districts throughout the county to take care of initial fire suppression efforts since 1993, when the Wildland Fire Council was formed. Before that, only some of the districts fought wildland fires.
Struble had initially expressed his concern about the lack of equipment and personnel to fight these fires to the fire council in February 1999. After requesting the aid again this year, Struble told the council he could probably not recommend the city sign the MOU for 2001 unless the city received equipment and personnel.
If the county does not act by Dec. 15, the city is fully prepared to pull out, Hughes said. The county, however, may not make the deadline.

To reach Avi Salzman call 871-4203 or e-mail asalzman@amigo.net

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