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Fund tapped to fight blazes

Dennis Webb
News Editor

The $9,133 per year that Garfield County pays into a state emergency firefighting fund is looking like a real smart investment following this summer’s Coal Seam Fire.

Fully a third of that fire burned on nonfederal land, meaning that a third of the cost of fighting it is technically not federal responsibility.

The final cost of fighting the fire is expected to reach $8 million, and at least $1.8 million of the bill will be handled through the state, although it will receive further federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Though fires have hit only certain counties this year, the state cost of fighting them is shared through the emergency fund, which is created through assessments paid by counties, said John Denison, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service, which administers the fund.

Assessments are based on a county’s property tax valuations and the amount of acreage protected in a county.

Counties such as Jefferson and Douglas can pay as much as $25,000 per year based on that formula, said Denison.

Colorado got a taste of just how dire a fire season it was in for early in the year. Denison said the $2 million emergency fire fund was exhausted in April. However, when that occurs the legislature steps in with an emergency appropriation, as it did during the recent special session, said Denison.

He said the fund also was exhausted during the 2000 and 1994 fire seasons. One of the 1994 fires that depleted the fund was the Storm King fire that killed 14 firefighters west of Glenwood Springs and threatened but didn’t burn any homes on the west edge of town.

As it turns out, even much of the state portion of this year’s firefighting costs is being covered by the federal government.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is contributing funding to cover 75 percent of the nonfederal portion of the costs of fighting many of Colorado’s wildfires.

Denison said FEMA provides that assistance in the cases of fires that burn homes or pose imminent threats to them.

FEMA has issued 16 grants to help cover firefighting costs in Colorado this year. By comparison, FEMA previously had made eight such grants in the last decade in the state.

Denison offered further evidence of what he called an “unprecedented” fire season in 2002. As of July 23, $131 million was spent fighting fires in Colorado. Those fires consumed 398,000 acres, 367 homes and 617 outbuildings.

The Coal Seam Fire eventually reached about 12,200 acres. While it has yet to be fully contained, the Forest Service has stopped fighting it because the 2 percent that is uncontained is burning in treacherous terrain and is not considered a threat. The fire has not grown much in the last month.

Mike Piper, chief of the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, whose service area includes Glenwood and a surrounding district, said a breakdown of the Coal Seam Fire was issued June 18.

It showed that about 4,000 acres, or 33 percent, of the fire burned on nonfederal land. About 31 percent, or some 3,700 acres, burned on national forest land, and the rest burned on federal Bureau of Land Management land.

That same breakdown showed the state to be responsible for about $1.8 million in costs, the Forest Service $1.7 million, and the BLM $1.96 million. But that was based on a total cost estimate at the time of only $5.4 million.

“This is gonna be sorted out this winter,” Denison said of the eventual final costs and cost breakdowns for Coal Seam and other fires, and the state’s payment of its share through its emergency fund.

Piper said firefighting costs aren’t on his mind when a fire happens.

“I never worry about the payment part. I worry about the extinguishment part,” he said.

He added that under agreements with other local departments, the first 24 hours of any mutual aid responses are provided for free. Other area departments provided critical assistance in protecting homes the first afternoon and evening of the Coal Seam Fire.

While the funding is in place to avoid saddling local departments and municipalities with the costs of big wildfires, FEMA spokesman Gary Gleason said fires are sometimes fought partly with the intention of avoiding complicating the question of how the firefighting costs will be shared.

Gleason said the incident commanders on the recent Spring Creek Fire north of New Castle purposefully fought the fire partly in a manner aimed at keeping it contained to federal lands, so nonfederal entities wouldn’t be saddled with any costs.


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