An all around battle: How officials battle wildfires from the conference room to the field

A firefighter watches the Buffalo Mountain Fire in June, 2018.
Summit Fire & EMS/Courtesy photo

When a wildfire rages, people see the firefighters on the ground, cutting lines and dousing fires. They see the planes overhead dropping retardant and they see soot-blackened faces. What they often don’t see is an office and people asking questions about dollars and jurisdictional borders.

“Where’s the fire headed? Who’s threatened? How much property is threatened? We start drawing polygons around neighborhoods saying, ‘What’s the assessed value of this neighborhood?’” Summit County Sheriff and Fire Warden Jaime FitzSimons said, talking about the people battling fires from conference rooms.

Back-end crews handling those questions support teams on the ground by calling in aid, predicting a fire’s path, dealing with jurisdictions and handling the expense reports — all of the things firefighters on the ground might not have time or attention to handle. Those coordinating teams far from the fire use statutes and agreements to guide their actions, FitzSimons said. Signed papers that stipulate whose fire it is and, ultimately, who pays for it.

Fires move up and down a ladder of command

At the beginning of any fire, the county’s different wildfire management agencies work together to battle the fire, according to the 2022 Summit County Wildland Fire Operating Plan. That time is known as the mutual aid period, and it lasts until midnight on the first or second day of the fire, per the plan. During that time, individual agencies cover their own costs, even if they’re fighting a fire beyond their jurisdiction. The plan states its mutual-aid guarantees a prompt response to wildfires.

The first fire response agency to arrive at the fire, regardless of jurisdiction, takes charge until the appropriate emergency response agency arrives. In most instances, the operating plan states the closest firefighting force will be dispatched, no matter if the fire is outside its jurisdiction.

As more crews reach the scene, wildland firefighting often becomes a joint responsibility of district, county, state and federal agencies. A fire may begin in a single district before enveloping several jurisdictions, resulting in a joint response. Summit County contains several land jurisdictions, complicating the fire management process behind the scenes, but the operating plan makes clear, however, that no agency should delay its response to hash out who has responsibility.

After the appropriate agency assumes control — such as Summit Fire & EMS, Red, White & Blue or the Dillon Ranger District — responsibility may be passed on again to the Summit County Sheriff since he doubles as the county’s fire warden. If the sheriff agrees the fire deserves their office’s oversight, they then “bring the checkbook,” as FitzSimons says, since the sheriff takes financial responsibility for the fire on the county’s behalf. The sheriff’s office creates an incident management team to manage the fire, as stated in the operating plan.

Upgrading again, responsibility can move from the county to the state level if the fire exceeds the county’s firefighting capabilities. Local agencies and the sheriff’s office are still involved, but a larger incident management team is established with state involvement from the Department of Fire Prevention and Control, according to the county operating plan.

But no matter how large a fire becomes, incidents always regress back to the local level.

“Wildfires start locally and end locally,” he said.

As the fire dwindles, responsibility works its way back down the ladder.

“At some point that fire will either be extinguished or become manageable,” FitzSimons said, “and then it starts going backwards.”

The responsible agency may keep a ticket open long after the fire’s been put out, FitzSimons said. Even once it’s extinguished, repair of any fire suppression damage becomes the responsibility of local agency, the plan states, as does any necessary law enforcement action. The responsible agency will have to investigate fires and any civil or criminal actions taken, and the sheriff’s office will coordinate fire investigation for state responsibility fires, the plan outlines.

But who pays for it?

Paying for a fire can require extensive negotiations, FitzSimons said. While a fire may have started on federal land, winds might have carried the fire into an urban area, and in that instance, federal agencies could argue the county takes some responsibility for allowing homes so close to forest land, FitzSimons said. There’s a back and forth because the county could also argue the fire originated on federal land, so it was their responsibility to contain it.

The end result of negotiations is a cost sharing agreement, according to the operating plan. There are several ways to pay: each agency could assume its own costs expended in the fire control effort; costs could be divided based upon percentage of ownership; each agency could agree to a negotiated portion of the suppression costs; or the agencies could use in-kind contributions to offset direct costs, the plan states.

In general, divvying up costs has been based on precedents, FitzSimons said, but some of those precedents are fading.

“Precedents really don’t stand anymore in this new world of wildland firefighting … because the wildfire season is getting worse and worse,” FitzSimons said.

Speaking hypothetically, he said smaller fires that burned less than 100 homes had previous precedents the county could fall back on, but if a modern fire torched 500 homes, there isn’t a precedent for the county to follow.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

As a Summit Daily News reader, you make our work possible.

Summit Daily is embarking on a multiyear project to digitize its archives going back to 1989 and make them available to the public in partnership with the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The full project is expected to cost about $165,000. All donations made in 2023 will go directly toward this project.

Every contribution, no matter the size, will make a difference.