Rural fire feud heats up

City expected to drop out of council today as county examines $1.7M plan

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— The Routt County Board of Commissioners may not be prepared to throw $1.7 million at wildland fire coverage to solve staffing and equipment problems until it has a better understanding of how that money would be spent. That move likely will lead the city of Steamboat Springs to opt out of the Wildland Fire Council and its wildland fire responsibilities, until the county commits to appropriating more money to fire districts in the county.

The county commissioners will meet with Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale today to discuss a proposal to aid county fire districts in wildland fire protection.

In November, the the Routt County Wildland Fire Council, made up of county fire districts and public land officials, determined that roughly $1.7 million would be needed over a five-year period for wildland fire protection.

The Routt County Sheriff's Office is legally responsible to put out wildland fires. However, the county uses fire districts to cover those responsibilities.

That means if a fire is burning in an unincorporated part of south Routt County, for example, it would be the Oak Creek Fire District's job to put it out with help from other districts that can respond. The districts then bill the county for the expenses associated with the fire.

The $1.7 million proposal is what the districts collectively feel it will cost to adequately pay for staffing and equipment to safely cover wildland fires while not leaving the area they're responsible for vulnerable, Vale said.

But the commissioners aren't ready to write the check.

"I seriously doubt if we will consider approving it (today)," County Commissioner Dan Ellison said Friday.

The commissioners are not completely sure how that money would be spent and they want to talk to members of individual districts to see what they have to say. Ellison said the commissioners know the need is out there, but say time also is needed to make a sound decision.

On Dec. 7, the city of Steamboat Springs indicated it will opt out of its wildland fire responsibilities if the county doesn't commit to pay for the proper equipment and staffing the city needs to fight county fires and cover Steamboat Springs, City Manager Paul Hughes said.

The deadline to make that move was Dec. 15. Hughes said the county can expect to see a letter this morning about the city's decision.

One county commissioner accused the city of "taking its ball and going home" when he heard that the city may opt out. That assessment didn't sit well with city officials.

"I don't agree with that at all," Hughes said. "The ball is in their court."

Steamboat Springs can enter into the council again any time it wants to. But if it doesn't opt out of its responsibilities by Dec. 15 the city is committed to the wildland fire council for another year, even if the county doesn't guarantee more funding. As county emergency manager and a key member of the Wildland Fire Council, Vale finds himself in the middle of a governmental tug-of-war.

"There are a lot of issues on both sides of this," he said.

On one hand, the fire districts in the council have identified how much it costs to safely cover wildland fires for the county. Now they are just waiting for the money to do it.

On the other hand, the county sees a $1.7 million proposal and automatically wants more details before shelling out such a large amount of money.

Either way, wrangling between the county and the city isn't helping solve the problem, Vale said.

"I just wish the city and the county weren't in this mess," he said. "They need to be working together."

Vale will officially present the $1.7 million proposal to the county at 2 p.m. today at the county commissioners hearing room in the Routt County Courthouse.

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