Attorney mum on fire opinion


— Routt County's attorney refused to comment publicly on the opinion recently released by the state Attorney General's office regarding the responsibility of fire districts.

During a meeting with major players in the county's emergency circle, County Attorney John Merrill said he'd prefer to discuss the AG's opinion during a private, executive session with the county commissioners.

The county commissioners agreed to set a date for next week.

In the meantime, the commissioners and sheriff felt free to discuss their opinions on the matter.

All agreed the AG's opinion made it clear that the sheriff is responsible for wildland fires in all unincorporated areas and public lands.

Commissioners Nancy Stahoviak and Doug Monger said that was never in dispute.

However, Stahoviak said the AG's written opinion clarifies what she and the sheriff thought all along that fire districts are responsible for fighting fires on private property in their own districts, no matter what kind of fire it is.

"One of the things we are doing is going above and beyond what is required by this AG's opinion," Stahoviak said. Stahoviak was referring to the fact that the county reimburses fire districts for fighting wildland and prairie fires, even if the fire is within the district's perimeters.

The AG's opinion states:

"When a fire ignites on private property within a fire protection district, the fire chief must respond if the district has firefighting equipment. If the fire protection district does not have firefighting equipment, it is the sheriff's responsibility to fight the fire."

The five fire districts in Routt County all have equipment and all have taken on the responsibility of fighting fires in their districts.

Stahoviak said despite the opinion, Routt County will continue to pay for equipment and firefighters who cover wildland fires, even if it's on private property. The fire districts in turn, cover wildfires that occur in public or unincorporated areas.

The request for the AG's legal opinion came after Steamboat Springs pulled out of the wildland fire agreement. The agreement is a document signed by all the fire districts that explains how they'll help each other during wildland fires.

The Steamboat Springs Fire Department covers the rural fire district immediately surrounding the city. Other county fire districts are Yampa, Oak Creek, West Routt and North Routt.

The city pulled out of the agreement after Routt County Commissioners refused to pay for three new fire trucks and nine new firefighters during a three-year period. The city claims the county should pay for the trucks and employees because it was the sheriff's and the county's statutory responsibility to cover wildfires.

The county said it already pays for wildfires by reimbursing firefighters and paying for equipment use, including its own road and bridge heavy equipment. The county also helps with grant writing.

In turn, the county commissioners said because Steamboat Springs wasn't part of the wildland fire agreement, it wouldn't be reimbursed for wildland fires. County commissioners said they would take another look at that policy if other members of the wildland fire council agreed it was OK, even though the city pulled out of the agreement.


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