Summit County, towns pay $135K to get federal help for potentially explosive wildfire season | SummitDaily.com

Summit County, towns pay $135K to get federal help for potentially explosive wildfire season

Trees along Highway 6 near Loveland Pass Wednesday, April 11. Summit County is providing funding for a crew from the U.S. Forest Service, as well as overtime funding for the sheriff's office, to supervise campfires in dispersed recreation areas.

Summit County's preparations for a potentially explosive wildfire season are well underway, as the county and its towns have come to an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service and the Summit County Sheriff's Office to help with mitigation efforts. Summit will provide funding for a crew of four seasonal workers to supervise efforts on federal land, while the sheriff's office will receive sufficient overtime funding to help with mitigation efforts within Summit's own boundaries.

The move comes as Colorado's third driest winter comes to an end. The lack of precipitation means that large swathes of the county and state are turning into standing fields of tinder and fuel.

The Forest Service and local fire brigades are trying to get ahead of the season by redoubling mitigation efforts, including wood chipping programs, brush and fuel clearing, public information campaigns and increased supervision at campsites. However, there is little funding available at the federal or state level to pay for the manpower required for such a mammoth task.

County manager Scott Vargo said the county and towns have been brainstorming ideas for a way to help meet the gap between what the region needs and what it has on hand for wildfire prevention efforts.

"We've been talking for a little while with the sheriff's office and Forest Service about something else that we can do to try to be a bit more proactive with fire prevention and fire campground monitoring," Vargo said. "There's a fair amount of camping in non-supervised federal areas, and one of the ideas was for the Forest Service to provide supervised staffing. However, the Forest Service has no discretionary funding to add that support."

Additionally, Vargo said Summit needed to figure out a way to pay for campfire supervision efforts in unincorporated areas of the county, where the Forest Service doesn't have jurisdiction, and the sheriff's office was best equipped to help with that task.

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Vargo said the county and towns met with the Forest Service and sheriff's office to negotiate a dollar amount to fund the efforts.

"We ended up with a grand total of $135,000 for the effort," Vargo said. "$85,000 will come from the county and its wildfire mitigation fund, and another $50,000 is coming from fire districts and towns."

Breckenridge is chipping in $25,000, while the towns of Blue River, Frisco and Silverthorne will each contribute $5,000. Dillon will pony up $4,000. When it comes to the local fire agencies, the Red, White and Blue fire district is throwing $3,000 into the pot, while Summit Fire and Copper Mountain Fire are seeking approval to push in $3,000 each.

As far as where the money is being spent, Vargo said that $86,000 will go to the Forest Service to provide a crew of four workers who will supervise campfires at dispersed recreation areas, while the sheriff's office will receive $25,000 to pay for overtime supervision of county recreation areas, and the final $24,000 will go toward a public education and wildfire awareness campaign.

Ranger Bill Jackson of the Dillon Ranger District, who was the primary negotiator for the Forest Service, described the function of the seasonal crew that will be brought in.

"This is a dispersed recreation crew, and their responsibility is to patrol the district in areas where people are road-camping across the district."

Jackson said that the district will be able to significantly expand territory coverage for campfire supervision.

"Without the funding, we could only fund two seasonal rangers, four days a week," Jackson said. "But this funding will give us a crew of four seasonal rangers to provide better coverage around the Dillon Ranger District seven days week. Now we can reach the north and south side of the county, all the way into Heeney, Spring Creek, all the way down to the Breckenridge area and everywhere in between."

Jackson said that forest rangers will be working with the crew to help perform their duties.

"We'll be providing daily supervision and oversight of the crew," Jackson said. "They're going to be working on contacting visitors and providing education about Forest Service and county regulations, especially those concerning natural resource protection and fire prevention. We'll prioritize folks who are camping in these dispersed campsites, and one of the functions of the crew will be to come up with a districtwide inventory to help manage or decommission them in the future."

Vargo said that the county is very pleased with the deal and hopes it will go a long way to preventing wildfires in the county this summer.

"We're very excited, and hope it's an effective way for us to get the word out both for folks on the ground, as well as funding a more formalized public awareness campaign."