Routt County commissioners prepare for 2019 fire season
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Though wildfire season has not yet arrived, the Routt County Board of Commissioners has already taken preparatory measures to improve this year’s fire protection services during their Tuesday meeting.
Commissioners approved an intergovernmental agreement that would decrease the amount of money the county reimburses to local fire districts for their wildfire suppression services. It allocates those funds to bolster the county’s own wildfire response capabilities.
This comes after one of the worst and most expensive fire seasons on record last summer.
A total of 229 fires burned more than 108,000 acres across Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Jackson and Grand counties. Some acreage also burned across the border into neighboring Wyoming and Utah, according to federal fire managers.
That nearly doubled the acreage from 2017 and outpaced any fire season in the last 20 years.
Battling those wildfires requires the coordinated efforts of local, state and federal personnel. At the local level, fire districts across Routt County — there are five in total — respond to wildfires within their own districts and provide reinforcements to neighboring ones when needed. They operate under contract with the county, which does not have the tools or personnel to fight wildfires on its own.
In the past, those districts could submit reimbursement requests to the county for all of their wildfire suppression, even for wildfires within their own districts. That is according to David “Mo” DeMorat, Routt County’s emergency operations director.
In the last two years, the county budgeted about $31,000 annually for those reimbursements. Recent spikes in the size and frequency of fires far overreached that budget.
In 2017, the county spent about $76,000 on reimbursements, then another $83,000 in 2018, according to DeMorat.
That doesn’t account for several other outstanding costs he said the county will have to pay federal departments for their suppression efforts last year.
The new agreement would prevent districts from receiving reimbursements from wildland fires that they suppress within their own jurisdictions. It maintains reimbursements for assistance they provide to other districts, as well as for volunteer and off-duty firefighters they call in for backfill.
Commissioner Tim Corrigan applauded DeMorat’s efforts, pointing to the need for local fire districts to be more prudent with their expenditures.
“There really shouldn’t be a blank check out there,” he said. “They need to manage their resources more effectively.”
Under the new agreement, DeMorat said the county could save 65 to 75 percent on wildland fire protection services.
“We don’t want to just put that money in the bank,” he said.
DeMorat envisions allocating those funds to boosting the county’s own fire protection efforts. That could include additional personnel and trainings, as well as more mitigation projects.
DeMorat said all of the county’s fire protection districts have signed on to the new agreement. It only requires the signature of Steamboat Springs City Council to go into effect this season.
That approval has not come without hurtles.
Chuck Wisecup, district chief for the Oak Creek Fire Protection District, has been negotiating the agreement with DeMorat and other fire chiefs for the last year.
He said the county was originally not going to reimburse districts for the volunteers and off-duty personnel who occasionally have to respond to wildfires. That includes firefighters working in their own districts.
Wisecup explained, in a rural district, like his own, he simply wouldn’t have the budget to pay those necessary workers without reimbursement from the county.
“They’re not going to show up if they aren’t going to get paid,” he said. “And they’re volunteers — I can’t force them to.”
Health of forests
After commissioners approved the new agreement, they heard a presentation from officials with the Colorado State Forest Service. They discussed the findings from their 2018 Report on the Health of Colorado’s Forests.
According to that report, Colorado experienced the warmest annual temperatures on record from October 2017 to September 2018. That intensified the number and size of wildfires last season and increased the populations of insects that have decimated the state’s forests.
Ron Cousineau, a forester based in Granby, told commissioners this winter has brought a relief from the drought conditions of past years. The Yampa Valley’s snowpack remains above the long-term average, which many see as a good omen for the summer.
Cousinea nodded to that optimism but warned snowpack is not a definite predictor of the fire season.
“Don’t let this one year of good snow and heavy water fool us into thinking that our forest health issues are over,” he said.
Commissioner Beth Melton quickly responded, “We will not be fooled.”
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