Fire funding answers sought

Commissioners want hard figures on costs of adding labor, engine

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— The same day the city of Steamboat Springs pulled out of an agreement to fight wildland fires, the Routt County commissioners were seeking hard figures on the costs of improving the county's firefighting capabilities.

That willingness to spend more is expected to entice the city back into the wildland firefighting fold.

The commissioners received a letter on Monday from Steamboat Springs City Manager Paul Hughes stating the municipality won't use its equipment and staff to fight wildland fires for the county for now.

However, the city would resume those responsibilities if the county pays for three additional firefighters and one engine dedicated to wildland fire next year, Steamboat Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble said.

The city's letter came just hours before Routt County Emergency Manager Chuck Vale told the commissioners that the fire districts in Routt County would need an estimated $1.7 million over a five-year period to safely handle wildland fires.

For 2001, Vale and the Routt County Wildland Fire Council agreed that three part-time, seasonal workers and one fire truck were needed. Struble would like to see that kind of investment as well.

However, the council didn't know how much the 2001 additions would cost the county, and the commissioners needed that information to know to make a sound decision.

County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak told the Routt County Wildland Fire Council and Vale that the county would consider adding the staff and engine for next year if the council knew exactly how much it would cost.

"We do not have the specific dollar amount that we need from you," Stahoviak said.

The county is responsible for fighting wildland fires, which it does by paying local fire districts.

"The county has the checkbook, the sheriff has the authority and the districts have the equipment," Vale said.

After a busy fire season around the nation last summer, county commissioners told Vale to look into what was needed to safely cover wildland fire in Routt County.

According to recommendations Vale presented to the commissioners at Monday's meeting, by 2003 the county should have a crew of nine firefighters and three new fire trucks capable of wildland and structural firefighting if it wants to be prepared for wildland fire.

Aside from not knowing how much improvements would cost each year, the commissioners expressed concern about the recommendations because they did not address what the fire crew would be doing when it wasn't battling blazes.

The commissioners also pointed out that turnover for a part-time, seasonal crew would be high, making hiring and training each year a major chore.

Plus, the Wildland Fire Council hadn't determined which districts would use the new engines and if those engines should be centrally located or strategically placed around the county. The commissioners also said the county probably can't afford to pay for the increased wildland coverage in the long term.

"I really want to look at some kind of mill levy increase to pay for this," Stahoviak said. "Right now, the county can't afford to do this."

But a new tax likely will be a tough sell.

"I have no idea how this thing would get passed," Commissioner Ben Beall said.

Most people in the county live in cities and towns where wildland fire is not a direct issue. Those people also are dealing with recent mill levy increases and may not vote to increase it again for wildland fire protection, Beall said.

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