Reimbursement decision up to Fire Council

City wants to be paid for fighting wildfires

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— The Wildland Fire Council will be asked to help decide whether the city of Steamboat Springs will be reimbursed for fighting wildland fires in its district, even though the city is not a member of the Wildland Fire Council.

The decision came during a contentious meeting Monday between the City Council, county commissioners and the Steamboat Rural Fire Protection District.

County commissioners wanted to know specific reasons why the Steamboat Rural Fire Protection District and the city withdrew from the Wildland Fire Council's Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). (The city fire department covers fires in the Steamboat Rural area surrounding the city.)

City Council members were more interested in collecting money for fighting wildland fires than explaining why they withdrew from the wildfire council.

Under the MOU, signed by members of the Wildland Fire Council, the county reimburses rural fire districts for manpower and equipment used to fight wildfires in the county. The county stopped reimbursing Steamboat Rural and the city after it refused to sign the MOU. The city wouldn't re-sign the MOU because it wanted the county to pay for three new trucks and nine new firefighters. The county said no the city was asking way too much.

In the meantime, the city continues to fight wildfires, with or without the MOU.

"Us not signing the MOU hasn't changed our behavior," said City Councilman Jim Engelken, referring to the fact the city has already answered a wildfire this year.

"If our behavior hasn't changed, we ask that yours doesn't either."

In other words, the city still wants money from the county without signing on to the wildfire agreement.

Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak shot back that if someone wouldn't re-sign an agreement with the city for services, the city wouldn't continue paying them for the service.

She also pointed out that the MOU is what causes the reimbursement to happen.

"Then why do we have the MOU? Let's just get rid of it," Stahoviak said.

Sheriff John Warner also reiterated his argument that state statutes say fire protection districts that collect taxes are responsible for all fires in their districts.

Warner clearly implied Routt County was already doing fire districts a favor, especially because almost all of the counties he surveyed in Colorado did not pay fire districts for fighting wildfires.

Councilwoman Kathy Connell referred to the argument as a "Mexican standoff."

"There has to be a give on your side," Connell said.

Stahoviak tried to get back to the reasons why the city withdrew from the MOU and how they could rejoin, but Connell kept hammering away at the commissioners.

"First we need this good-faith gesture (by the county) before we talk about rejoining," Connell said.

"I need a letter of cooperation" saying the county will pay for the city's wildfire efforts, she said.

Commissioner Doug Monger eventually buckled under the pressure from Connell and others, saying he might not be opposed to reimbursing Steamboat city firefighters.

Stahoviak quickly reminded the two dozen people in the room that there had to be a consensus from the Wildland Fire Council.

"I will not do it without going to our partners," Stahoviak said.

One of those partners, Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup with the Oak Creek Fire Protection District, said he didn't have a problem with the city being reimbursed for wildfires in Steamboat Rural. He suspected other Wildland Fire Council partners may not either.

In the meantime, the city appears to be abiding the intent of the wildfire MOU, but by not signing it will not be eligible for certain benefits. For example, if the city had signed the MOU, the county would pay "workers comp" and insurance for its trucks during wildfire use.

Still, City Manager Paul Hughes wants to continue opting out of the wildfire MOU.

He explained that because the county was not buying new fire trucks or paying for new personnel, it was "no longer satisfactory" to stay in the MOU.

The need for three new fire trucks and nine paid firefighters came out of a study done by the Wildland Fire Council last year consisting of the county, city, Steamboat Rural, Oak Creek, Yampa, West Routt and the North Routt fire protection districts, along with the state and U.S. Forest Services.

"It's unclear as to whether the recommendations were incorrect, or the county believes they're correct but they believe they're the responsibility of others," Hughes said.

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