Wildfire costs mount for Routt County | SteamboatToday.com

Wildfire costs mount for Routt County

The Wolverine Fire burns a mountainside in the Routt National Forest in August 2005. In the foreground are the charred remnants of trees that fell victim to the Hinman Fire in 2002.

— An early wildfire season amid extremely dry conditions has local officials drawing comparisons to Routt County's last big fire season of 2002.

"Right now I think it's prudent of us to prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said John Twitchell, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service.

That was his message Tuesday to a group of local officials trained to relay information to the public during incidents such as plane crashes and fires. With an agenda focused on the wildfire season, the meeting was packed.

An unusually dry and warm spring has provided an early start to the 2012 wildfire season, beginning March 15 when an agricultural burn got out of control along U.S. Highway 40. Since then, there have been at least 10 other wildfires that started as agriculture burns. A fire reported while the public information officers were meeting Tuesday ended up burning an estimated 225 acres of vegetation on ranch land along Routt County Road 31 before being brought under control.

"Something different about this year, obviously," Twitchell said.

Not only did spring came early this year, but it's perhaps a full month ahead of 2002's pace, said Lynn Barclay, of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

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"When the runoff occurs over a longer period of time, the lingering snow has time to seep into the ground as the ground thaws and is taken up by vegetation, giving plants moisture," Barclay said. "This spring, it happened early and quick for the most part. The runoff still ended up in reservoirs and streams, etc., but not as much available to plants."

Similar conditions existed at the beginning of the wildfire season in 2002, when 41,900 acres would burn in Routt County's Routt National Forest. The Hinman and Burn Ridge fires in North Routt started in July 2002 and joined to form the Zirkel Complex that burned 31,000 acres. The lightning-caused fires were not fully contained until October.

That same summer, the Green Creek Fire burned 4,400 acres in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness Area 15 miles southeast of Steamboat Springs. The Lost Lakes and Big Fish fires burned 6,500 acres in the southern part of Routt County and another 13,500 acres outside the county line.

Fighting the Zirkel Complex cost about $13.5 million in federal dollars, and the Green Creek Fire cost about $3.2 million.

Routt County Finance Director Dan Strnad said the county spent $182,880 in personnel and operating costs in 2002 related to wildfires. The county typically budgets $10,000 annually to fight wildfires, said Bob Struble, director of Routt County Emergency Management. That money essentially has not been used the past three years, but they already haved used it up this year.

State laws make fighting wildfires on private and state land within Routt County the responsibility of the sheriff. Rather than equip the Routt County Sheriff's Office with firefighting resources, the county traditionally has chosen to reimburse local fire districts for fighting the fires.

"It works pretty well for us," said Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak, adding that the county could appropriate additional money this year for wildfires.

Struble said he has not received the bills for last week's 225-acre fire along C.R. 31. About 30 firefighters fought that fire.

For comparison, the 200-acre Beaver Valley Fire that burned March 26 and 27 along C.R. 55 cost nearly $6,000. It was staffed with eight firefighters, and the West Routt Fire Protection District was reimbursed $4,432.57 and the Oak Creek Fire Protection District was paid $1,444.33.

Invoices still are coming in from other wildfires that have occurred in the county during the past month.

"Costs are definitely on the forefront of my mind and, quite honestly, everybody's," Struble said.

Local officials now are focusing their attention on the wildfires that have been caused by agricultural burns, and the Routt County Board of Commissioners will consider enacting fire restrictions this week.

"You are responsible for your fires, and if they leave your property line and go onto someone else's property, you could be incurring some legal issues to say the least," Twitchell said.

As summer approaches, Twitchell said public education will need to shift from agricultural burns to forest fires, and the common-sense things people should know if a fire threatens populated areas or homes.

"That's a message we haven't had to worry about in the past couple years," Twitchell said. "Maybe we ought to up the message."

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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