Routt County’s 2017 wildfires busted the budget | SteamboatToday.com

Routt County’s 2017 wildfires busted the budget

Firefighters mop up one of the smaller wildfires of 2017 at Whitewood Drive, south of Steamboat Springs.

The summer of 2017 in the Yampa Valley was defined by wildfires. The Deep Creek and MiIl Creek fires in West Routt, the Big Red Fire in North Routt and numerous smaller fires that burned in the region pumped a haze of smoke into the air and caused a small number of households to prepare to evacuate.

After taking a hard look Jan. 15 at the $83,028 they spent last year on fighting wildfires, the Routt County Commissioners gave Emergency Management Director  David "Mo" DeMorat the go-ahead to approach the five rural fire protection districts in the county with a plan intended to guide the county to spend that money more effectively. He will introduce his plan Jan. 17  at a meeting of the wildland fire Multi Area Coordination (MAC) advisory group.

DeMorat believes that over the long term, the county and the rural fire protection districts in Steamboat Springs, North Routt, Yampa, West Routt and Oak Creek will realize greater long-term benefits from spending the majority of that money on upgrading the effectiveness of their volunteer firefighters and the tools available to them.

"Our emphasis would be to focus on building capabilities to get a return on our investment," DeMorat said. "That’s the overarching goal."

Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Chuck Wisecup also happens to chair the advisory group.

He said in his view, the firefighters in each of the rural districts play a critical role in keeping small wildland fires from turning into larger, more costly fires.

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"I have two people on duty 24/7" to be "ready to go out with a brush truck," Wisecup told Steamboat Today. "None of us have enough people, and it's tough."

Eighty-thousand dollars and change may not sound like a large sum compared to the millions spent by federal agencies to put out the three big fires last summer. But it's an amount that more than doubled the county's 2017 budget for that purpose. And when compared to the amount spent annually over the last eight summers, that $80,000 ranked second only to the summer of 2012, when the county spent $94,330 to put out blazes compared to a budget of $10,000.

Routt County doesn't operate a firefighting department itself. And the five rural fire protection districts are essentially governments themselves collecting taxes from property owners within their districts.

The districts have a long tradition of mutual aid — turning out to fight fires in each other's districts. And Routt County has historically budgeted  between $10,000 and $31,000 (in 2017) to compensate the fire districts for suppressing blazes, including those fires burning within their own districts.

However, recent changes to Colorado law no longer require counties to do so, and DeMorat believes the county's dollars would produce more dividends if they were applied to steadily raising the capabilities of the various fire protection districts year after year.

Tentatively, DeMorat said, the county proposes to continue to encourage the mutual aid ethic and  compensate the districts for their expenses in the first "response period" (up to the first 24 hours on the fire line) when they respond to wildfires outside their own district, with the cost to the county perhaps capped at $30,000.

County Commissioner Tim Corrigan  said he liked DeMorat's tentative proposal but also guaranteed there will be pushback from the fire districts.

"I think there's a chance we're going to start a fire here," Corrigan said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1