Fire district question smolders

Attorney opinion does little to clarify matter

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— Colorado's Attorney General has sent down a much-awaited opinion that has clarified what kind of responsibility fire districts have when it comes to fighting fires in their districts both wildland fires and structure fires.

Routt County Sheriff John Warner requested the opinion after Steamboat Springs pulled out of a wildland fire agreement that included the city, county and area rural fire districts.

The city, which has a contract to fight fires in rural areas immediately surrounding the city, said the sheriff and county have the responsibility for fighting prairie and wildland fires.

City officials said the county needed to purchase more fire-fighting equipment and hire more personnel before the city would come back to the negotiating table.

But Warner maintains the Steamboat Rural Fire Protection District collects taxes and is responsible for fighting fires on privately owned land, whether it's prairie, wildland, or hayfields.

According to the attorney general, both parties are correct to some degree but it appears the city may have more responsibility than Steamboat officials thought.

The first question presented to the attorney general's office attempts to clarify one of the big arguments between Warner and the city.

Q. Must a fire protection district fight fires within the boundaries of the district?

A. A fire protection district must fight fires within the district only under certain circumstances. The duty to fight fires arises when the district acquires fire-fighting equipment, and only applies to fires on private property. When a fire ignites on private property within a fire protection district, the fire chief must respond if the district has fire-fighting equipment. If the fire protection district does not have fire-fighting equipment, it is the sheriff's responsibility to fight the fire."

The sheriff said the city of Steamboat Springs has at least four different trucks that are used to fight wildland fires, including two brush trucks.

City Fire Chief Bob Struble confirmed that but said the other two trucks are actually built for structure fires and can't be used in steep terrain or thick brush. Struble said he also sends his men to wildland fire training.

The city and the Steamboat Rural Fire District also sent out a flyer before last year's November vote requesting money for the fire district. The vote asked for an increase in the mill levy or property tax in order to buy new equipment. The flyer said, "the City and the District need money to replace aging trucks, add new trucks..."

Warner said even though the mill levy increase passed, the city wants to essentially create a county fire department anyway by making the county buy three new fire trucks and hire nine new employees over a three-year period.

"The agreement between Steamboat Rural and the city said they wanted to keep from duplicating services," Warner said. "I will not duplicate services and it's wrong to even consider duplicating the service that they're already supposed to provide."

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