Officials say strong partnerships are key to wildfire preparedness and response

Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi, left, and Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons discuss how strong partnerships between local and federal agencies help to mitigate wildfire risk and improve response during a community meeting at the Summit County Community & Senior Center Monday, Nov. 15.
Summit County Sheriff’s Office/Courtesy photo

Community members gathered at the Summit County Community and Senior Center Monday morning, Nov. 15, for the latest monthly conversation with Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, an initiative he launched in October to better engage with the public on important topics in the area and provide insights into how county leadership goes about making decisions on key issues.

FitzSimons was joined by Dillon District Ranger Adam Bianchi, along with Summit Fire & EMS Chief Travis Davis who occasionally chimed in from the crowd, for this month’s topic: wildfire.

FitzSimons noted that he was hesitant to hold a discussion on wildfires too early in the fall, returning again to an old adage of former Summit Fire Chief Jeff Berino about fire season not being over until there was a foot of snow on the ground. While that’s far from the case now, officials moved forward with a high-level discussion about how they go about assessing fire danger, fire restrictions and sharing responsibilities when a fire ignites in the area.

In general, they said the most important aspect of their decision-making processes is the relationships between the sheriff’s office, U.S. Forest Service, local fire districts and other partners.

“There’s a lot of collaboration always,” Bianchi said. “There’s a give and take with everything we do. That’s what actually builds relationships. It isn’t just the fact that we can sit down and have coffee. There’s a lot of support for implementation of on-the-ground work that we all can realize and get behind. That truly, in my opinion, is what makes it work.”

That collaboration is widespread by design. During the fire season — roughly between June and October — local officials hold weekly phone calls with other jurisdictions from around the Upper Colorado River Interagency Fire Management Unit response area, which stretches from Summit County to the western border of Colorado. FitzSimons said there are sometimes as many as 85 officials on the call talking about firefighting resources, weather, fuels and other fire indices locally and nationally.

Along with more focused semiweekly discussions among local fire officials — informed by data collected from fuel moisture sampling and the Forest Service’s automated weather station near Soda Creek — the conversations help to inform important decisions like whether the fire districts will update the county’s fire danger level or if FitzSimons will recommend changes in restrictions to the Board of County Commissioners. Though, Davis said those decisions aren’t always based entirely on science.

“If you’re right on the fringe of maybe going to high (fire danger) … but we’re also going to enter a four-day holiday weekend, you have to make the best decisions based on what you have in front of you, not just what the data is telling you,” Davis said. “… I think that with Smokey (fire danger signs), a lot of it is based off science, but there is a component of it that’s also based off politics and what’s going on locally.”

“Looking from the outside in, it might look like some of these decisions are made in a vacuum — all of a sudden you read there are fire restrictions or there are no fire restrictions — but they’re made with a lot of consideration and a lot of input from a lot of experts,” FitzSimons added.

Officials say that collaboration is also key in risk mitigation — Bianchi lauded Summit County’s voter-approved Strong Future Fund that provides $1 million a year for mitigation efforts — along with firefighting operations and determining who pays for suppression costs.

The White River National Forest and the county’s fire districts, along with other agencies, all partner on the annual Summit County Wildland Fire Operating Plan, which stipulates that the closest firefighters to a wildfire should begin the initial attack regardless of jurisdiction, and the responsible agency will take over management when they’re able. If the blaze exceeds the capabilities of a fire district to control, responsibility is handed over to the sheriff, who then has authority to order state resources.

During lulls in firefighting operations, officials will also begin negotiating who will pay for suppression efforts, such as mutual aid responses and aircraft.

For example, Summit County and the Forest Service came to an agreement in which the service ended up paying for all of the main suppression costs on the Ptarmigan Fire, which burned entirely on Forest Service land. Bianchi noted that as part of the negotiations, in-kind contributions were also considered, such as Silverthorne setting aside facilities for use by firefighters and law enforcement support by the town and sheriff’s office.

Bianchi also said that moving forward there is a desire to place a greater emphasis on why fire managers use the tactics they do in cost-sharing negotiations, instead of simply determining costs based on the fire’s location.

He noted that wildfires are naturally beneficial for the environment, especially in forests heavily composed of lodgepole pine, which have serotinous cones that require heat to open. But, according to the Summit County Community Wildfire Protection Plan, about 99% of the county’s population lives within the wildland-urban interface, meaning allowing fires to burn for a resource benefit is rarely an option.

“Our tactics are based off the location of homes,” Bianchi said. “On Ptarmigan, as an example, we wouldn’t have put all those air resources, all that effort for an 85-acre fire. But we did it in order to save … homes. So you have to have a philosophical discussion about why were the tactics used, why were the resources spent, how was the money spent and why did we do what we did. … I have to look at tax dollars from somebody living in New York to California to here in Summit County. … If someone in New York is paying for this fire in Ptarmigan and all those efforts there that went into that, is that appropriate? … I think it’s a valid question.”

Officials said they felt few other communities have agencies able to work together as effectively as Summit, and they said it has been a major factor in how successful the county has been in combating wildfires in the past.

“I think we’ve learned over the years on a couple of the fires we’ve had here that have gotten bigger, that our relationships are really what matters in how successful we are,” Bianchi said.

FitzSimons’ next community conversation will be held on Dec. 13 and will be centered on winter operations at the sheriff’s office.

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