Wildfire council asks Grand to invest in new position | SkyHiNews.com

Wildfire council asks Grand to invest in new position

Grand County is getting ready to invest significantly more into wildfire mitigation through the Grand County Wildfire Council.

Grand County Wildfire Council Chairperson and Grand Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Schelly Olson outlined a proposal before commissioners on Tuesday, highlighting the need to invest further into the local “fireshed.” Namely, the wildfire council asked for the county’s support in establishing a full-time director for the nonprofit group, which is currently volunteer-only.

Olson warned that at the current level of demand and need for wildfire mitigation in Grand, doing nothing would leave the county waiting for “the next East Troublesome Fire.”

“If we do nothing, the wildfire council is not sustainable,” Olson said. “We are volunteers. We have full-time jobs.”

The wildfire council currently has two major programs available in Grand County — the hazardous fuels cost share reimbursement program and free community chipping days. Over six years, the council has reimbursed $300,000 toward $1.2 million in projects treating 1,083 acres in Grand. The majority of those projects took place this year.

Since 2016, the council has hosted 26 free chipping days costing $92,000 that have seen 999 participants. The popularity of the chipping days continues to grow.

Yet local fire departments are finding that they are running out of staff for these projects, and the volunteers can only accomplish so much. Grand County’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan is 17 years old and in need of updating, while grant applications aren’t nearly as thorough as the council wants because no one has time to devote to finding and writing them.

With the Grand County community more interested than ever in property risk assessments, fuel mitigation projects and fire preparedness, Olson is calling for action.

“We need to get it done on the ground,” she said. “We can’t keep talking about it.”

These are things that cost money, but Olson feels certain that state and federal dollars are on the way for communities engaging in collaborative fire prevention efforts. With groups across Colorado interested in these funds, Olson wants to get Grand County into a competitive position.

“The good news is the financial environment around wildfire is about to significantly change,” she said. “If we are not ready, the money will go to other counties. We have to be ready. That’s what I’m here for today.”

The council also asked for commissioners’ commitment to participate in fire discussions on the state and federal levels. One issue Grand has seen in relationship to mitigation projects is that the larger counties have been more vocal.

“While there’s a lot of good intent out there, until we really get involved and we really have a voice in those regional and national conversations, somebody else’s voice is always going to be bigger,” Grand Fire Chief Brad White said.

East Grand Fire Chief Todd Holzwarth and Hot Sulphur Springs Parshall Fire Chief Tom Baumgarten also spoke up asking for the county’s support.

“We definitely need this manpower to be able to go forward,” Baumgarten said. “We have a lot of danger out here. We’ve got a lot of things happening and it’s going to come to a head at some point in time again that we need this program to get started.”

Olson added that this could be a regional role, as Routt and Jackson counties have expressed interest in collaborating with this effort. Doing so could help spread out costs and improve the strength of the effort.

Grand County commissioners sounded willing to fund a position, and maybe even put additional dollars toward helping seed grant projects.

“It’s amazing how much more I believe we could get done with some dedicated, coordinating resources to do this collaboration,” Commissioner Merrit Linke said.

Specifics still need to be worked out on the position and any additional funds, but with county staff presenting the final 2022 budget on Nov. 9, it will have to be fast.

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