BRECKENRIDGE - The Western Slope's Emergency Fire Fund has been around since 1967. Summit County has never needed it.
Local fire agencies were able to contain more than 50 fire starts independently last year without having to call on assistance or funding from elsewhere in the state.
But Summit officials call the fire fund, to which county contributes $27,000 a year toward a $1 million account that helps cover the cost of fighting wildfires in Colorado, an "insurance policy," securing the county's access to state emergency funds should there be a catastrophic wildfire.
"Participation in the fund is part of our comprehensive wildfire planning," Summit County emergency manager Joel Cochran said. "If we delegate the management of a fire from the county to the state because the fire's bigger than our ability to manage, if we weren't a member of the fire fund then the costs of that fire would come back to the county. We would potentially not be eligible to get reimbursable money to offset the fire costs."
Counties across western Colorado chip in on the fire fund. Last year, the entire $1 million balance was used up by early March when Jefferson County cashed in to fight the Lower North Fork Fire.
That money was a drop in the bucket compared to the $24.5 million the state spent fighting wildfires by the end of the season.
Still, Summit County and others continue to pay into the fund as a point of access to emergency funding from Gov. John Hickenlooper's office in the event of a serious wildfire.
"It truly is the gateway to the governor's funds," Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said Tuesday.
The fire fund system only applies to fires on private land. The federal government picks up the tab for fires on U.S. Forest Service land, such as the Keystone Gulch fire in June 2011.
Once approved, Summit's participation in the state fire fund continues for five years. The portion of the total $1 million paid by the county government is calculated based on a formula that takes into account the amount of wildland-urban interface in each county. Larger counties like Jefferson contribute higher amounts.
In the event of a catastrophic wildfire, even with assistance from the fire fund and the governor's office for the initial attack on the blaze, the county would still likely be saddled with costs including those associated with feeding and sheltering firefighters.