Fire a hot topic at special session

Lawmakers may introduce increased penalties for wildfires

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— State lawmakers returned to Denver Monday for a special session to address recent wildfires and the ongoing drought.

Their agenda caught the attention of county officials.

Routt County commissioners are concerned the five-day session will not give Democrats and Republicans enough time to tackle concerns about wildland fire.

A week will hardly allow lawmakers to scratch the surface of the issue, commissioners said.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation that would implement tougher penalties, such as longer prison sentences and higher fines for people who set wildfires.

People who disregard the fire ban on public property currently face misdemeanor charges that carry fines of up to $750 and six months in jail.

The commissioners sent a letter Friday to Gov. Bill Owens that lends their support to revising the state's wildfire laws.

While they did not take sides on the matter of increasing penalties for those who start wildfires, they stressed the need for revision of state statutes in order to promote flexibility as well as consistency with local governments and fire districts.

But any revision of state wildland fire statutes must be deliberate, County Commissioner Dan Ellison said.

Commissioners speak from experience after attending bi-weekly meetings for six months with representatives from the City of Steamboat Springs and the five fire districts within the county to craft revisions to the county's Memorandum of Understanding.

Fire districts that signed the agreement are responsible to respond to wildland fires in the county, and the county agrees to reimburse those districts for the cost of fighting the fires.

Updating local policies was difficult, commissioners said.

Updating state policies will be harder.

"It will take a great while and should not be rushed with legislation," Ellison said. "This is not a one, two week process."

The updated MOU for Routt County calls for the breakup of the Wildland Fire Council and the creation of two groups assigned different roles in handling the issue of wildland fires.

The first of the two groups focuses on policies and ways to fund the county program.

The second group focuses on wildland fire planning and strategies.

The revised MOU comes at a time when wildland fires have become a greater issue of concern for Routt County and the entire state.

But commissioners are worried the timing is wrong for lawmakers to address such a sensitive issue that has affected so many people in Colorado.

"It's not a good idea to be talking about wildfire when emotions are so high," Monger said.

The commissioners support the creation of a task force to revise and update the current wildfire statutes.

He suggested a better time for a special session would be during the winter months when the fires have died down and the people now in the face of the wildfires are able to lend their insight to the discussion.

"You have all the players at the table," Monger said. "They're not out fighting fires."

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