Summit County leads discussions on new Colorado wildfire agreements
After spearheading 10 months of discussion on state wildfire laws affecting counties, Summit County commissioners signed a series of agreements on Tuesday that would update outdated policies on wildfire management and emergency funding.
Commissioners signed an agreement facilitating wildfire management between the state and local governments, which was last updated in 1991. They also signed a new version of a funding agreement relating to fire-fighting efforts, which had not changed since 2003.
“None of the agreements that our governments signed before said what they were actually doing,” said Summit County Emergency Management director Joel Cochran.
The agreements were updated to reflect the process counties currently use to request state aid in fighting wildfires. For example, if a wildfire extends beyond a fire district’s means, then responsibility is handed to the sheriff at the county level. If a fire is beyond a county’s resources, then the state is given control.
While Summit County has not recently fought any fires that have extended beyond the county’s control, they still pay $20,000 to the state’s emergency fire fund every year. This allows the county access to $1 million for fighting large-scale, complex fires that it otherwise would not have the resources to manage. Under the new agreement, the state is also limited to adding a 13 percent administrative fee to fire bills; before they were able to ask for a much larger cut.
”In my opinion, Summit County was a leader in helping craft this new solution,” said Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs. “We worked hard to try to find common ground.”
Summit County’s involvement began after the Division of Fire Prevention and Control proposed new versions of both agreements. However, due to the restrictive nature of the contracts, Summit County refused to sign the original agreements proposed by the state.
“We thought that the state was dictating too much how the [county] funds would be used,” Gibbs said.
More than 12 counties became involved, as Summit County officials worked with state officials, county sheriffs and attorneys for nearly a year to find an agreement.
“We had several chats between counties and the state to figure out what language was most appropriate,” said Melissa Lineberger, a policy analyst for the Divison of Fire Prevention and Control. “The state wanted the counties to give more, and the counties wanted the state to give more.”
Instead of taking the form of a contract, the revised agreement was written as a memorandum of understanding, allowing counties more flexibility in applying for aid in fighting wildfires. Lineberger added that the state had received positive feedback from the counties during recent discussions.
“Summit County’s kicked the ball quite a bit to make this happen,” said Summit County Sheriff John Minor. He added that the counties that choose to opt out and retain the previous law “… will be operating on an archaic, ineffective agreement.”
While most county leaders are on board with the agreements, a few raised concerns that counties are now listed as responsible for wildfires. However, Cochran said that in practice, the process should continue as it has in previous years, as the government has historically provided additional emergency funds to help cover the cost of wildfires when the Emergency Fire Fund runs dry.
“How Summit County works with the three fire districts won’t change. How we work with U.S. Forest Service, that won’t change either. In my opinion, it just changes the relationship we have with the Division of Fire Prevention and Control,” Gibbs said. “I think the state heard from the counties that had real concerns, and instead of digging in their heels, they listened. I give them a lot of credit for finding a solution that works for everyone.”
The Agreement for Cooperative Wildfire Protection will be effective for five years, and the Emergency Fire Fund agreement is effective for one year, with four one-year automatic renewals.
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