Several newspaper articles and anonymous comments in “RH Line” of the Reporter Herald regarding the Round Mountain Fire in the Big Thompson Canyon prompt me to write this. It is obvious that the sheriff’s role and responsibility for wildland fire suppression is generally not understood. Recent statutory changes further muddied the waters on the jurisdictional issues involved.
By Colorado statute, the sheriff has always been the “fire warden” for the unincorporated areas of the county. It didn’t matter if the unincorporated areas were covered by a fire protection district or not. The statute merely read, “The sheriff of every county, in addition to other duties, shall act as fire warden of his respective county in case of prairie or forest fires.” Period! The duties of the fire warden weren’t defined. The Colorado State Fire Chiefs’ Association wanted the fire department chiefs to have more authority over wild fires and sought some statutory changes. None of the fire departments in Larimer County were pushing for that change as the cooperative agreements we had in place were working quite well. Quite honestly, many of the Colorado sheriff’s wanted out of the fire business since they lacked the resources or expertise to handle wildland fires. That is not the case in Larimer County where we have well trained and experienced Emergency Services personnel and equipment geared for wildland fire fighting. A compromise was reached. The 2009 statute clarified the responsibilities, stating that the sheriff is the fire warden for the county and “is responsible for the coordination of fire suppression efforts in the case of prairie, forest, or wild fires occurring in the unincorporated areas of the county outside the boundaries of a fire protection district or that exceed the capabilities of the fire protection district to control or extinguish.”
It is important to understand that a great deal of Larimer County is NOT covered by a fire protection district. A fire protection district is a separate governmental entity that collects a tax to support their activities. Portions of Larimer County are covered by one of sixteen fire protection districts: Allenspark, Berthoud, Big Elk Meadows, Crystal Lakes, Estes Valley, Glacier View, Livermore, Loveland, Loveland Rural, Lyons, Pinewood Lake, Pinewood Springs, Poudre Canyon, Red Feather Lakes, Wellington, and Windsor-Severance. Many of these departments are small departments relying solely on volunteers who lack the resources or expertise to manage a major wild fire incident. There are also two volunteer fire departments that aren’t in a taxing fire protection district: Rist Canyon and Glen Haven. Technically, the sheriff is responsible for wildland fire suppression in these two jurisdictions and in the other unincorporated areas of Larimer County.
The other statutory change more specifically addressed “wildland fires – general authority and responsibility.” It shifted the responsibility for wildland fires from the sheriff to the fire chiefs when they occurred “within the boundaries of his or her district and that are within the capability of the fire district to control or extinguish ….” It adds that the “fire chief may transfer any duty or responsibility the fire chief may assume under this section to the county sheriff with the concurrence of the sheriff.” That is what occurred in the Round Mountain fire. Loveland Fire determined that the fire exceeded their capability to manage and requested the Sheriff’s Office take it over.
I don’t know that this addition to the law helped clarify the situation at all. What if a sheriff says “no” and doesn’t concur with the transfer of responsibility? In the case of a wildland fire that exceeds the capability of fire district to control or extinguish, the statute specifies that the “sheriff shall appoint a management team to provide the command and control infrastructure required to manage the fire” and that “the sheriff shall assume financial responsibility for the firefighting efforts on behalf of the county and the authority for the ordering and managing of resources.”
When a fire exceeds the capability for the Sheriff’s Office to manage, there is a well established process for transferring the command of a large fire incident to the Colorado State Forest Service. We routinely interact with the United States Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management due to the large amount of forested federal land in our boundaries. All of the relationships and authorities are spelled out in both our Annual Operating Plan and Wildland Fire Preparedness Plan. Each county is required to have these plans in place. Federal agencies coordinate the plans with the sheriff in each county. With the hundreds of fire districts and volunteer fire departments in Colorado, it wouldn’t be practical for the feds to have agreements with each of them.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office values the long-standing relationships we have with our partners in the fire service. We have mutual aid agreements in place and are really the envy of much of the state because of the level of cooperation and expertise we have in Larimer County. I take exception with one of the headlines that read, “Paper slows blaze battle: New provision in plan causes response delay.” I have talked with my staff and the Loveland Fire Chief about the Round Mountain fire. I can assure the public that there was no delay in getting resources on the Round Mountain fire and that the statutory changes won’t cause any delays in attacking future fires. Our shared philosophy has been to get the necessary resources on a fire as soon as possible with the objective of saving property and lives by extinguishing or containing a fire as soon as possible. We can hammer out jurisdictional and financial issues when the smoke clears. In the case of the Round Mountain fire, the new wrinkle was formalizing the transfer or authority and the assumption of financial responsibility via a document. The process was exactly as practiced when the Sheriff’s Office transfers authority to the state; only this formal transfer was from Loveland Fire Protection to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office remains committed to fulfill our obligations for providing emergency services to our community. We appreciate and value our partnerships with the numerous fire departments that assist us in protecting our citizens and their property and meeting our common goals.