City will aid in wildland fires

— People living in the rural area just outside of Steamboat Springs will be relieved to hear the city's fire department will be responding to wildland fires in their district after all.

"We'll be out there doing some type of initial attack," said Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Bob Struble. "What we were saying is that we were needing help. That's never changed."

But Struble's latest conciliatory statement comes as a surprise to many key players in the wildland fire controversy.

Back in September, Struble said his fire department would not be making the initial attack on wildfires if the Steamboat Springs Rural Fire Protection District pulled out of a wildland fire agreement with five other fire districts. The city covers fires for the district, the area just outside of the city.

Since then, the rural fire protection district indeed pulled out of the wildland fire agreement, leaving most people believing city fire trucks would not respond to wildland fires.

"It had been my idea that they would not be providing initial attack," said District Chief Bryan Rickman of the West Routt Fire Protection District.

"That was my impression," echoed County Commissioners Dan Ellison and Nancy Stahoviak.

North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Peter Baillie said he is not surprised to hear the city would not abandon its rural neighbors.

"Struble is a dedicated firefighter," Baillie said. "He had some very serious concerns and we all do."

The city, which supplies the rural fire protection district with fire service, has been pressuring the county to pay for three fire engines and nine extra firefighters. When the commissioners refused, the rural fire protection district (and the city's fire department) pulled out of the wildland fire agreement.

The surrounding fire districts such as Oak Creek, North Routt and West Routt believed they were going to have to pick up the slack at a time when many of their own resources were stretched.

Struble has said repeatedly a lack of manpower and equipment is putting the city's residents in jeopardy while its fire department answers wildland fire calls for the rural district.

Struble and the city's hard-line stance against responding to wildland fires may have been tempered by recent publicity that the rural fire protection district collects taxes from citizens for fire suppression.

While an old state statute says the sheriff (thus the county) is responsible for wildland fires, a 1989 update of that statute says the sheriff is not responsible for fires that are located within "a fire protection district or municipality providing fire protection services."

This would imply the rural fire protection district (and its city partner) would have to answer any fire calls.

Routt County Sheriff John Warner is waiting on a formal opinion from the state's highest law enforcer the attorney general.

"Why should it be dependent upon the sheriff to duplicate services that the fire district already collects taxes for?" Warner asked.

The fire districts charge residents a mill levy so they can cover structures and property fires.

But under the wildland fire agreement, the fire districts also get money from the county whenever the fire is a wildfire. These payments include money for firefighters' time and heavy equipment use.

The commissioners said they are willing to work with the rural fire protection district to get it back into the wildland fire council but said the county could not provide the new engines or firefighters to the "city." Stahoviak said the county couldn't afford to buy or maintain the new fire engines. She also said the county is meeting its wildland responsibilities, for example, by paying out $77,000 to fire districts throughout Routt County in 2000 for wildland fires.

"The county is willing to play ball," Commissioner Doug Monger said. "But we're not going to buy equipment."

Stahoviak said the commissioners support the fire districts in other ways besides paying them for wildland fires. She said the county supports applications for grant money that would help pay for equipment.

For example, the Yampa Fire District will be applying for such a grant in July, and the North Routt Fire Protection District is likely to get a $200,000 grant from the state's Energy Impact Fund.

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