Wildland Fire Council asks county for funding

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— The Routt County Wildland Fire Council will ask the Board of County Commissioners to come up with $1.7 million over a 5-year period to help suppress wildfires.

The recommendation comes out of a report that will be presented to the commissioners on Dec. 18.

The report also recommends fire districts ask taxpayers to raise their mill levies so they can hire paid staff.

Many members of the Wildland Fire Council said findings in the report justify the extra money.

"I think there are parts of the report that will shock people," said Steamboat Springs City Fire Chief Bob Struble, "especially when they see just what's available and how many people actually respond to calls."

Sheriff John Warner agreed.

"The one thing brought out is we are all lacking volunteers," Warner said.

The commissioners requested the report after the city of Steamboat Springs threatened to pull out of the Wildland Fire Council's Memorandum of Understanding.

The MOU outlines cooperation between the city and county's fire districts and how they cover wildland fires. The city has been demanding that the county buy equipment and hire people to help fight wildfires.

The Wildland Fire Council is made up of six fire districts that cover the county's wildfires. Mill levies help support the fire districts.

But in Colorado, the sheriff and county government is responsible for leading the fight against wildfires. That means the county pays a firefighter every time he fights a wildland fire. This year, the county paid about $69,000 to fire districts for wildland fires.

Under the current wildland fire agreement, the city fire department makes the initial attack on wildfires in the rural area immediately surrounding Steamboat Springs.

Struble has said repeatedly that this leaves homes and property inside the city in danger.

However, the commissioners wanted a full report on the status of emergency services in Routt County before they made any decision on buying equipment or hiring new people.

According to the report, the city isn't the only one in trouble.

The report says that two rural fire departments North Routt and Yampa Fire Protection do not have enough firefighters to meet national safety standards.

Oak Creek and West Routt Fire Protection districts barely meet those standards, according to the report.

To cover this gap, the Wildland Fire Council is asking the county commissioners to hire three seasonal firefighters each year for a period of three years. That means in 2003 there will be nine seasonal firefighters who will help all the fire districts fight wildland fires.

The existing fire districts will continue to make the initial attacks on wildfires, but the seasonal crew is supposed to relieve them so the fire districts can go back to covering their own territory.

The director of the county's road and bridge department, which provides heavy equipment for wildfires, sees seasonal employees as a double whammy to the taxpayer.

"We're asking for unnecessary duplication of services which doesn't justify $1.7 million," Paul Draper said.

Draper said hiring seasonal employees and buying three Type 2 engines, which are also on the wish list, as forming a county fire department.

But Draper's argument didn't go over well with many fire chiefs who pointed out the sheriff and county are mandated to be in charge of wildland fires.

They also said throwing money at the fire districts for new employees doesn't mean they will find people to fight the wildfires.

Steamboat Public Safety Director J.D. Hays, who strongly supports a nine-man crew, said he wasn't sure how the seasonal firefighters would be hired.

Commissioner-elect Doug Monger also brought up the fact that the report talked about "structural" and wildland fire suppression. He reminded the group that the current commissioners have been adamant about only paying for wildland fire suppression.

Chuck Vale, the county's emergency management director, said there are cases where wildland fire trucks respond to a fire and there are structures they have to protect.

He also said the price difference between a Type 2 and Type 3 engine (which is used only for wildfires) was small enough that saving homes would make it worth it.

The Wildland Fire Council goes before the county commissioners on Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. in the commissioner's hearing room in the county courthouse annex building.

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