Colorado River Fire Rescue looks to use more funds coming in from rising natural-gas prices to re-open former station

Colorado River Fire Rescue's James Noah smiles while in the Rifle firehouse.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Fighting fire boils down to simple math: More people on shift mean more responders taking calls.

Colorado River Fire Rescue Chief Leif Sackett knows all too well what critical issues a fire district endures when not just personnel but other capital assets, like fire engines, dwindle.

Recent times were bleak. Station 43 in south Rifle closed down. Former CRFR Chief Randy Callahan offered to retire early. The district also sold off brush and ladder trucks, gutted part of its ambulance staff and consolidated positions.

These previous cuts are directly related to dropping oil and gas prices of the time — a market many sub districts across Western Garfield County rely upon for funding.

But, in December, Sackett had some good news. He said the district’s newest 10-year-capital-replacement plan includes hiring more personnel and the possibility of re-opening Station 43 in 2026. CRFR’s budget increased from $4.1 million in 2021 to $5.7 million in 2022. To usher in the new year, the district is now looking at a $7.7 million budget.

“What’s nice about starting to have a budget like this,” he said, “we can start looking at restoring what we pulled back and what we lost.”

Colorado River Fire Rescue Chief Leif Sackett, left, speaks with crew members at the Rifle firehouse.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Two major reasons explain why CRFR’s budget has seen nearly an 88% increase over the past two budget cycles. 

One, fire district voters approved a 6.75 mill levy increase to be phased in incrementally over the next three years. The vote was approved in 2021, and funds from the increase kicked in for 2022.

Two, Sackett said the district is seeing a 127% bump in assessed valuation based on the renewed health of the oil and gas market. 

“We’ll look at opening that station somewhere around that 2026 timeframe,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have everything in place, we have the right data, and we make sure it’s right for the citizens and make sure it’s right for us.

“And, make sure it’s right for us, fiscally, as well.”

On Friday, Garfield County Assessor Jim Yellico said this major increase in assessed valuation is thanks specifically to an increase in the price of natural gas. Garfield County has over the past year drilled 68 new gas wells, with another 228 permits pending, numbers from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission dashboard show.

Meanwhile, natural gas prices for August — a month that generally sees higher prices compared to others — increased from $2.3 per million British thermal unit (Btu) in 2020 to $8.81 per million Btu in 2022, numbers from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show.

“There will be plenty of money again, for them,” Yellico said of CRFR. “In addition to oil and gas staying high, the real-estate valuation is going to go up, as well.”

Western Garfield County historically is at the mercy of the notorious boom and bust. Prices go up, for-sale signs go down. Prices go down, houses get boarded up.

Yellico said this is the ultimate challenge sub districts like CRFR face, and that it’s up to leadership to figure out how to weather these storms.

“There’s been huge booms and busts of valuation,” he said. “The boards that help run their organizations will help tell them what to do while there’s money. That’s up to each one of them.”

More fires

Regaining apparatus and personnel comes at a time when Colorado alone saw its top 20 worst wildfires over the past 22 years.

Ranked 18th overall is Glenwood Canyon’s Grizzly Creek Fire of 2020. That consumed 32,631 acres, and, to this day, its residual effects continue to plague Garfield County.

Ensuing mudslides have especially made pulling drinking water from the Colorado River not so fluid of a task. Higher sediment and muck prompted the town of Silt — one of three municipalities in CRFR’s coverage area — to recently call for a new $28 million water-treatment center because its current one is failing insidiously to filter Colorado River water.

Paul Chinowski is a professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. He’s also director of the university’s environmental-design program.

He told the Post Independent on Friday there’s a clash between near- and long-term goals over reducing environmental disasters and bolstering necessary resources to fight them.

“We traditionally have always underfunded fire districts,” he said. “We need the resources to better fight these things.”

He said there’s really no easy answer to this. If the government starts to offer more incentives to cut production and  transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy, it’s inevitably going to affect another group. 

“Whatever solution we end up putting in, there’s going to be some sacrifices required to get through this transition,” he said. “Right now, nobody wants to give anything.”

Chinowski also said, ultimately, there needs to be a balance in the development of renewable sources and more sustainable approaches to healing and cooling, or else events like the Grizzly Creek Fire will continue to wreak havoc. 

“It’s a balance between investing in alternatives,” he said, “while also getting short-term financial benefits.”

More calls

Sackett wants to make life easier for his crew to do their jobs. Updating ambulances, extraction equipment and apparatus are just the ticket.

Year-to-date 911 calls (through November) for CRFR is up 6.8% compared to 2021. That’s 2,353 calls last year compared to 2,513 calls this year. Midway through December, he expected the district to reach about 3,000 calls before 2022 closed out. 

To also brace for this increase, he looks to use budget bumps to add another body per shift. There are 11 firefighters currently per shift. He wants 12.

When it comes to how the funding for all this is derived — including revenues from oil and gas — he said there needs to be a balance.

“I can’t say that we need to go all electric, and I can’t say that we need to go all oil and gas,” he said. “It’s got to be somewhere in the middle.” 

Securing the future

CRFR Firefighter and paramedic Chelsey Johnson had enough. Working for CRFR between 2014-2019, he left for another department.

“This is my job. This is my livelihood. Looking at advancement and being able to support my family was an uncertainty,” he said. “If we don’t have the funding that we need, then everybody’s job is going to be on the line.”

Things have since then changed, and, recently, Johnson came back to work for CRFR full time. He’s a man who likes to cover his bases, and, right now, it looks like financial stability is more of a home run than anything else.

And, sitting in the Rifle firehouse on Dec. 21, he couldn’t help but want to put a new extrication device recently purchased by the district onto one of the trucks.

This is another reason why he said CRFR is right now doing a good job of getting things in motion and securing the district’s future.

“It was a little rough there for a couple years, certainly — some ups and downs and some uncertainties,” he said. “But, as far as my decision to come back here, I couldn’t be happier.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

Post Independent reporter and Assistant Editor Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or

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