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Emergency fund covers fires outside protection districts

Donna Gray

Firefighters are always there when we need them, whether it’s a burning house or a raging wildfire. But after the smoke has cleared and the fire equipment is returned to the station, the accounting begins.Fire protection districts rural Garfield County, for the most part. Those districts pick up the tab for fighting fires under their jurisdiction.But who pays the bill when a fire occurs on private land that’s not in a rural fire protection district? In this county, the sheriff is responsible for the outcome of all fires. He can dip into a state-administered pot of money called the Emergency Fire Fund. But during an especially heavy fire season, that pot often runs dry.This year’s contribution from Garfield County is $13,539.33, and the statewide goal for the fund is $500,000. In 2006, the goal is to have $1 million in the fund. Garfield County’s contribution will increase accordingly.Often, in unprotected areas, the nearest fire protection district responds and sometimes has to foot the bill.Garfield County commissioners faced such a dilemma earlier this week when Sheriff Lou Vallario presented them with a bill for $14,441.44 for the High Aspen Fire. The fire burned Aug. 9-13 on private property between Spring Valley and Missouri Heights, an area no fire protection district covers.Vallario applied to the fund, administered by state forester James Hubbard, but was turned down. The fund is established each year from voluntary contributions from counties that use it like insurance against having to fight fires such as the High Aspen.The application was denied funding because it did not meet all the criteria for reimbursement, Vallario said. Some of those criteria include a threat from the fire to public land or structures.Meanwhile, the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District is still trying to recoup its $14,441.44. On Monday, commissioners agreed that although law doesn’t require them to cover the cost of such out-of-district fires, they would do so if all other recourses failed.There is also a case to be made, Vallario said, against the landowner on whose property the fire started. Although the cause of the fire is unknown, it was clearly accidental, Vallario said. John Schuhmacher, the owner of the property in Homestead Estates, could still be held responsible and be ordered by a court to pay for the cost of fighting the fire, Vallario said.”We think the fire started on his property because of some action he took. We’re not suggesting it was intentional,” Vallario said. But Schuhmacher hired a private fire investigator who disputes the sheriff’s claim.However, the best course seems to be another appeal to the Emergency Fire Fund. Vallario is set to meet with the fund committee this month to re-evaluate the application.The dilemma also points to a larger issue: landowners who will not take the step to form a fire district.”Property owners should know that it would be in their best interest to join a fire district,” Vallario said. “The reality is, they can tag them for cost of fighting a fire. If I’m living out in sticks I’m really at risk to lose all I own if I’m not part of a fire district.””Property owners should know that it would be in their best interest to join a fire district,” Vallario said. “The reality is, they can tag them for cost of fighting a fire. If I’m living out in sticks I’m really at risk to lose all I own if I’m not part of a fire district.”


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