An all -round battle: how the officials fight forest fires in the conference room on the ground

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A firefighter monitors the Buffalo Mountain Fire in June 2018.
Summit Fire & EMS / Courtesy Photo

When a forest fire rages, people see firefighters on the ground, cutting the lines and turning off the fires. They see the planes above their heads drop delayer and they see faces blackened by the soot. What they often don’t see is an office and people asking about dollars and jurisdictional boundaries.

“Where is the fire going? Who is threatened? How many properties are threatened? We are starting to draw polygons around the neighborhoods saying: “What is the estimated value of this neighborhood?”

The background teams who deal with these issues support the teams in the field by calling for help, predicting the path of a fire, dealing with jurisdictions and processing expense reports – all things firefighters on the ground may not have the time or attention to manage. These remote fire coordination teams use bylaws and agreements to guide their actions, FitzSimons said. Signed papers that state who owns the fire and, ultimately, who pays for it.



Fires move up and down a command ladder

At the start of any fire, the county’s various wildfire management agencies work together to fight the fire, according to the Summit County 2022 Wildfire Operating Plan. assistance and lasts until midnight on the first or second day of the fire, depending on the plan. During this time, individual agencies cover their own costs, even if they are fighting a fire beyond their jurisdiction. The plan states that mutual aid guarantees a rapid response to wildfires.

The first fire response agency to arrive at the scene of the fire, regardless of jurisdiction, takes over until the appropriate emergency response agency arrives. In most cases, the operating plan indicates that the nearest firefighting force will be dispatched, regardless of whether the fire is outside its jurisdiction.



As more and more crews arrive on the scene, fighting wildfires often becomes a joint responsibility of district, county, state and federal agencies. A fire can start in a single district before enveloping several jurisdictions, resulting in a joint response. Summit County contains multiple land jurisdictions, complicating the behind-the-scenes fire management process, but the operating plan states, however, that no agency should delay its response to determine who is responsible.

Once the appropriate agency has taken control – such as Summit Fire & EMS, Red, White & Blue, or the Dillon Ranger District – responsibility can be shifted back to the Summit County Sheriff since they also serve as the firefighter County. If the sheriff agrees that the fire deserves his office’s oversight, then he “brings the checkbook,” as FitzSimons puts it, since the sheriff takes financial responsibility for the fire on behalf of the county. The sheriff’s office creates an incident management team to manage the fire, as indicated in the operating plan.

By upgrading again, responsibility can shift from the county to the state level if the fire exceeds the county’s firefighting capabilities. Local agencies and the sheriff’s office are still involved, but a larger incident management team is being established with state involvement from the Department of Fire Prevention and Control, according to the county’s operating plan.

But regardless of the scale of a fire, incidents always decrease at the local level.

“Wildfires start locally and end locally,” he said.

As the fire wanes, the responsibility goes down the ladder.

“At one point, this fire will either be extinguished or will become manageable,” said Fitzsimons, “and then he will start back.”

The responsible agency can keep a ticket open long after extinction of the fire, said Fitzsimons. Even once it is extinguished, repair of any fire extinguishing damage becomes the responsibility of the local agency, the plan says, along with any necessary law enforcement action. The responsible agency will have to investigate the fires and any civil or criminal action taken, and the sheriff’s office will coordinate the fire investigation for fires under state responsibility, the plan says.

But who pays for it?

Paying for a fire can take lengthy negotiations, FitzSimons said. Although a fire may have started on federal lands, winds may have carried the fire to an urban area, and in this case, federal agencies could argue that the county bears some responsibility for allowing homes so close. forest land, FitzSimons said. There’s a back-and-forth because the county could also claim the fire originated on federal land, so it was their responsibility to contain it.

The final result of negotiations is a cost sharing agreement, according to the operating plan. There are several ways to pay: each agency could bear its own costs incurred in the firefighting effort; the costs could be divided according to the percentage of ownership; each agency could agree on a negotiated part of the removal costs; Or agencies could use contributions in kind to compensate for direct costs, indicates the plan.

In general, cost allocation has been based on precedents, FitzSimons said, but some of those precedents are fading.

“Precedents don’t really exist anymore in this new world of wildfire fighting…because wildfire season is getting worse and worse,” FitzSimons said.

Speaking hypothetically, he said small fires that burned fewer than 100 homes had precedents the county could fall back on, but if a modern fire burned 500 homes, there is no precedent. to follow for the county.


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