Statute's meaning smolders

County officials divided over interpretation on state wildfire law

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— The Routt County Commission and county attorneys are analyzing a wildland fire statute that appears to imply the county and sheriff's department are not financially responsible for wildland fires that occur within established fire districts.

That would mean the sheriff and county would be financially responsible only for fighting wildfires in unincorporated areas where fire districts do not collect taxes.

The statute was brought to the attention of the wildland fire council by the chief of the West Routt Fire Protection District, Bryan Rickman.

"It is my understanding that the sheriff is in charge of wildland fires in the county but is only obligated to fight fires in areas not within a fire district," said Rickman in a letter.

"What we're waiting for is the county attorney's interpretation," Rickman elaborated Wednesday.

Rickman's interpretation of the statute would make Steamboat Springs nervous because the city is already responsible for fighting structure fires in the rural area surrounding the city.

Rickman's reading of the statute implies Steamboat would also be responsible for wildfires in the rural area because they supply the fire protection for that fire district.

Until this year, the city was fighting wildfires in rural Steamboat. But the city was fighting the wildfires under an agreement with the county. The city pulled out of the wildfire agreement when the county refused to buy engines and hire firefighting crews to help with wildfires during the summer.

County Attorney John Merrill said there are several statutes all pertaining to how the sheriff is responsible for wildfires, which causes some confusion

"The Legislature hasn't really coordinated these statutes," Merrill said.

Currently, the county is paying fire districts for fighting wildfires, even if the fires are inside their districts. The county paid out $77,000 to fire districts in Routt County in 2000.

Sheriff John Warner said this has caused concern among taxpayers who feel as if they are paying twice for fire services. The fire districts already charge residents a mill levy so districts can cover structure and property fires. If a wildfire occurs within the district, the county again pays the fire districts for fighting those wildfires.

And now, the city of Steamboat Springs wants the county to buy fire equipment and pay for more firefighters for wildfires.

"Taxpayers are asking me, 'Why do we have to buy another fire truck when we have a mill levy already supporting our fire districts,'" Warner said.

In the meantime, Chuck Vale, who oversees the county's emergency services, is collecting information from other counties on how they handle the sheriff's and county's obligations for wildfires.

"They all seem to do it a little differently," Vale said.

In the meantime, Vale plans to evaluate information taken from other counties and hopes to have clues to a solution by the end of March.

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