Summit County leaders tell Sen. Cory Gardner they need more support for wildfire suppression | SummitDaily.com

Summit County leaders tell Sen. Cory Gardner they need more support for wildfire suppression

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, addresses a room of local leaders, emergency officials and U.S. Forest Service personnel as they talk about wildfire prevention Monday inside the North Branch of the Summit County Library in Silverthorne.

If federal dollars grew on trees in Colorado's forests, stopping them from burning en masse every summer might not be so hard.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner met with a cast of local players on Monday in Silverthorne to talk wildfire prevention and preparedness.

The hour-long conversation included over a dozen local figures, including representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Breckenridge Town Council, Red, White and Blue Fire Protection District and Summit Fire & EMS.

Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons, Silverthorne Police Chief John Minor, one commissioner from Summit and Eagle counties, a state lawmaker and high-ranking officials from the Keystone and Breckenridge Ski resorts also made time for Monday's sit-down with the Colorado Republican.

The authorization of overtime, a patchwork of inconsistent fire bans, campground patrols, beetle kill and increasingly large numbers of people visiting Colorado's forests all came up during the meeting.

The single issue raised most often, however, was funding.

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"I'm imagining you don't ever go to a meeting where somebody doesn't talk about funding," Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson told Gardner. "But it's true. I think one of the things that is interesting here in Summit County — we have a significant number of yet-to-be-done fuel breaks … but we don't have the funding right now to do it."

Gardner came into the meeting with a handful of staffers, who took notes, as the local officials and agency representatives repeatedly brought up waning federal funding for the U.S. Forest Service.

Many of the local officials described how they see more and more money going toward fighting fires while less is being spent on preventing them. More than one told Gardner that local taxpayers have been filling gaps in federal funding and contended it's unfair to put such a burden on them.

"The local taxpayers are taking on so much responsibility because it's our neighborhood, it's our community," Minor said while recalling how deputies often had to patrol area campgrounds because the Forest Service lacked the manpower when he was the county sheriff.

Davidson also said the return on investment for money spent on fuel breaks is "incredible" compared to the potential loss of homes and other structures. After the Buffalo Mountain Fire burned dangerously close to homes just outside Silverthorne in June, Davidson also sees a newfound willingness to undertake such projects.

Summit County voters will decide on a ballot measure in November that would raise $8.8 million countywide for mental health initiatives, recycling and early childhood education while guaranteeing $1 million for wildfire prevention, Davidson added. The money could help build more fuel breaks in Summit, but even if the ballot measure passes, he said there's not enough to go around.

"The local voters can't possibly fund all of this, right?" Davidson said. "We're willing to fund part of it. It's a matter of just what kind of flexibility do these guys have with regards to working with us on something like that and what kind of funding could be found. We'll help; we just can't fund it all."

In response, Gardner lauded the Good Neighborhood Authority, which allows the Forest Service to enter into cooperative agreements with states for forest management services, and said the Farm Bill, which currently contains some money for wildfires, could be two ways to help boost forest funding.

He also expressed optimism Congress could fix "fire borrowing," or the act of diverting funds from forest health and fire prevention programs to fight wildfires.

"If you look at fixing fire borrowing, that will result in a lot more resources being made available for fire mitigation, prevention, reduction," he said. "That will be a big support, but obviously anytime you increase the budget, it's very difficult to do."