Fire districts: saving lives while filling needs
There are dozens of special taxing districts in Grand County.
Most quietly perform functions that are essential for civic society while being very low profile. Some of our local special districts though provide very high profile services to the community, most notably the fire protection districts.
The high profile nature of a fire protection districts is obvious. Not only do fire protection districts perform high profile roles such as the suppression of structure and wildfires and the rescue of motorists after highway crashes; they do it all from bright red trucks with blazing sirens and flashing lights. But the line of demarcation between local governments, such as the Town of Granby or Grand County, and our fire protection districts can be confusing.
GRAND FIRE DISTRICTS
In simple short-hand there are five fire protection districts in Grand County: Grand Lake Fire, Grand Fire, East Grand Fire, Hot Sulphur Springs/Parshall Fire and the Kremmling Fire Protection District. All five of the fire protection districts operate independently from any of the various municipal governments or from Grand County government and each district is governed by a Board of Directors elected from voters within the confines of the district every two-years.
The unique dynamic of special taxing districts also means funding for our local fire districts is handled independently from other taxes levied on citizens. Funding for the districts is derived almost entirely from property taxation with each district assessing a specific number of mills each year through a mill levy.
The unique dynamic of special districts can be both positive and negative from the perspective of those working within a given district. “We are fairly autonomous,” said Grand Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Brad White. “We make our decisions based on what our tax payers want. The Towns derive a lot of their income from property taxes and sales tax. Depending on what the economy does their funding can be fairly fluid.” White explained that property taxes minimize the rapid fluctuations in funding that can occur from sudden economic downturns. “We get a little bit of a heads up,” White said. “We work with the trends a little more than an immediate drop off.”
Schelly Olson, also Assistant Chief for Grand Fire, pointed out fire protection districts have specific boundaries and the district’s official responsibilities extend only as far as though boundaries. “We had a big fire incident up in Kremmling earlier this year (the Gore Ridge Fire),” Olson said. “It was outside the fire district. All the people up there are now concerned about if they live inside a district and what the costs are if they don’t.”
Thankfully the hard work of firefighters from throughout Grand County prevented any structures from being lost on the Gore Ridge Fire but that didn’t change the calculus when it comes to paying the bills. In such circumstances, when a fire occurs outside an existing fire district, the responding agencies can and typically do send bills to homeowners. Bills are based on engine time and manpower used to battle a fire.
The bills sent to non-district homeowners for firefighting calls can be quite substantial but there is a way to prevent such problems. The legislation that covers special districts allows for “inclusions” or the adding of specific parcels of land under the authority of a specific special district. Inclusions can occur after property owners formally request inclusion into a district.
Assistant Chief White was previously with the Hot Sulphur Springs/Parshall Fire Protection District (HSS/PFPD). During his time with that special district a portion of the Williams Fork Valley was added into the HSS/PFPD at the request of local homeowners.
Special Districts of all kinds face many challenges but for fire protection districts there is a specific need that tops their list. Assistant Chief Olson explained the local departments often struggle to hold on to good volunteers because of time requirements for both training and responses. Her sentiments were echoed by White.
“If you look at our average firefighter and how many hours of hazmat training they should have, how many hours of structure fire training, wild land fire training and rescue and extrication training they need to meet state and national standards it’s a challenge,” White said. “We are probably at around 180-hours of training before we can turn someone lose on a truck.”
But regardless of the amount of training needed the role filled by our local fire districts is essential. “What we tend to forget is they (special districts) are organized by the community,” said White. “We have a need and feel the best way to deal with that is a special district. Whether that is clean drinking water, recreation or fire protection; it is a need the community has recognized and we go out and create a special district to fill it.”
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When the East Troublesome Fire raged across Grand County last October, thousands of people were evacuated from the US Highway 34 corridor in 90 minutes, thanks in part to the preparation of evacuation maps.