State’s new wildland fire policy changes how counties, service districts will pay for fire suppression

State’s new wildland fire policy changes how counties, service districts will pay for fire suppression

05 January 2017

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USA —  In response to a statewide overhaul in wildland fire policy, Grand County, the Moab Valley Fire Department, and the Castle Valley Fire Department have each signed on to a new agreement with the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands (FFSL). The agreement shifts the operational and financial responsibility for fire prevention, mitigation, and preparedness to each separate entity while placing the costs for fire suppression on the state. These changes, which officials say have been three years in the making, also signify modifications to the way Grand County and the fire special service districts will pay for fire mitigation.

Jason Johnson, southeast area manager at FFSL, told the Grand County Council Dec. 6 that the new agreement corresponds to a national strategy on wildfire, which focuses on creating “fire adapted communities, providing safe and effective wildfire response, and restoring and maintaining landscapes.”

“If we do those things, then the cost of wildfire should go down over time,” Johnson said. “ … The intent of it is to get each entity, from a municipality to a special service district to a county [to] the state and to a certain extent our federal partners, all working towards those goals.”

In the old system, Grand County was the only entity fiscally obligated with FFSL, then-county council chairwoman Elizabeth Tubbs said during the Dec. 6 meeting. In the case of a wildfire within the county, she said, Grand would use a budgeted deductible until it was exhausted, then the state funds would kick in.

Now, each entity will pay the state a “participation match” based on the history of actual fire costs and a percentage of fire risk in their districts. Grand County’s participation match for 2017 totals $15,855, Moab Valley’s is $19,340 and Castle Valley’s match is approximately $2,800.

By participating, all suppression costs after “initial attack” on a fire will be covered by the state, Tubbs said. However, should the county not participate in the agreement, it would need to pay the entire cost of a wildfire that starts on unincorporated county lands.

“Should we have the big fire next year and we’re not part of this, we do not sign onto it, we’re on the hook for the whole thing,” she said. “[Conversely], if we have the big fire next year and we are joining in this agreement … then all suppression costs after initial attack will be covered by Forestry Fire and State Lands.”

Although the agreement is voluntary, that financial threat leaves entities with little choice but to participate, said Castle Valley Fire Chief Ron Drake.

“It seems like communities and fire districts really do not have much of a choice considering the possibility of getting stuck with a large bill in the event of a catastrophic fire event in their district,” Drake said.

That each entity now has responsibility for the operational and financial costs of a fire’s “initial attack” in their districts, including patrolling and monitoring, raised some questions for Grand County.

Although the county has a fire warden, which is a shared cost between the county and the state, it does not actually have a fire department. The agreement necessitates that each participating entity have a person managing the delegation from a fire’s initial attack to ongoing attack.

“That’s a big question for the county — who’s going to do this work? I’m not sure how it’s going to look, but it may involve creating an additional fire district,” Tubbs said.

Council member Chris Baird said there’s “a lot more work to do” beyond this agreement, adding that the council may potentially need to explore creating an actual fire agency.

“I think my big problem is right now, is there might be places in the county where a fire sprouts up and the only person who can respond is the fire warden with two guys and a little truck and we have to instantly turn it over [to other entities] because we have no resources to deal with it,” Baird said.

That the county is having those conversations, Johnson said, means the agreement is doing what the state intends — creating better fire-prepared communities.

“The fact that we’re having this portion of this conversation, goes right to that intent of having everyone look at ‘how do we provide safe and effective wildfire response?” he said. “How do we create communities that are prepared? How do we create landscapes that are resilient and fire adaptive?’”

But Moab Valley Fire Chief Phillip Mosher told The Times-Independent that for him, the policy does not actually change who will respond to a fire in Grand County. A fire starting on county lands outside of his district will not stop the Moab Valley Fire Department from responding if needed, he said.

“We’re still going to fight fires like we always have. All [the agreement] is, is the state bureaucracy deciding who’s paying for the fire. No matter what happens, we’re still fighting fires,” Mosher said. “ … If it’s in our district, we have the duty to respond. If it’s in the county, we have that moral obligation to mitigate it until [additional] resources get here. We will provide the initial attack.”

Tubbs said Moab Valley Fire District has responded to fires outside of their district “mostly out of the goodness of their hearts.” She told the council Dec. 6 that the agreement would better formalize the county’s financial responsibility.

“We’ve been lucky in the county. We’ve had fire departments that don’t have essential responsibility to respond to certain things like car fires or going out into unincorporated areas that aren’t close to anybody, do that without really coming back to the county and saying ‘hey, pay me for this,’” Tubbs said. “It might mean now that the county has to get more formal about dealing with those other entities that have to jump in and do the work that needs to get done.”

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