Officials discuss wildland fires issue

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— Routt County is not ready to move forward with a recommendation to hire additional personnel and equipment to fight wildland fires.

County officials want to continue to discuss the matter with the fire districts and departments that make up the Wildland Fire Council.

"We didn't see the county having the resources to do these two items," County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. "We need further discussion to decide how we can make these things happen."

In 2000, the fire council put together a report that concluded the county needed to hire nine full-time seasonal firefighters and add three engines by 2003.

County officials did not follow the recommendation, which resulted in the Steamboat Rural Fire Protection District and the city's fire department from participating in the county's wildland fire program in 2001.

The city decided not to sign the county's Memorandum of Understanding because city officials felt the county's budget did not provide adequate funds for the city to fight wildland fires.

The issue is once again expected to figure in whether the Steamboat district and department rejoin the council next year.

To figure out the issue, county and city officials have come to the table with the council to discuss issues and make changes to the program.

"We think the recommendations are a good idea," Stahoviak said of hiring firefighters and buying engines. "But how do we do them? Where do we place them and how do we pay for them?"

Chuck Vale, who is the county's emergency service director, is hopeful these questions can be answered by next May when the county adopts its annual operation plan.

Before the council can even address the operation plan, which must be signed May 1 with the federal government, the council has to sift through its 2000 study.

The council consists of Oak Creek, Yampa and West and North Routt fire protection districts, along with the state and U.S. forest services.

Currently, the council is meeting twice every month to update the study to ensure everyone feels comfortable with the direction the county is taking.

"In the end, we have to find out how we can agree and help each other," Vale said. "We can't solve the problems if we don't talk. It is a bigger and broader issue of just fighting the fires."

Wildland fires have become an issue for the county because they have been on the rise. In 1999, the county had 44 fires. In 2000, the number jumped to more than 100. This year, the county has dealt with 93.

"If we don't talk about the issues, we are headed for a disaster," Vale said.

Agencies that sign on to the county's MOU, are reimbursed by the county for manpower and equipment used to fight wildfires.

Because the Steamboat district and fire department did not sign the MOU, it was not reimbursed by the county for a fire that occurred in June.

Vale is hopeful all of the agencies, including Steamboat, will be willing to sign the MOU by March.

"It is critical for this group to figure out the issues," Vale said.

So far, the council has had two meetings that have Steamboat Springs Assistant Fire Chief Bob Struble optimistic.

"I am pleased to see the elected officials at the table," Struble said. "The meetings have been productive."

Struble said at this point it is too early to say whether the Steamboat district and department will sign the county's MOU.

Once the meetings are complete, which in anticipated by early spring, Struble will make a recommendation to the City Council.

The fire council's next meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Jan. 3 at Centennial Hall in Steamboat Springs.

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