Moffat County officials accepted an award at Monday's commission meeting from state fire management representatives for being the forerunners on the completion of a staged three-year long fire management plan.
Bill Wallis of the State Bureau of Land Management offered Moffat County commissioners and members of the Sheriff's Department a wooden plaque of recognition and added he would nominate the county for a national award -- a distinction that he said would make earning grant money for implementing the fire plan almost effortless.
Commissioner Darryl Steele, who started on the board this year after much of the fire management plan was already in place, declined to be present for this portion of the meeting in an act of long-standing protest of the fire plan.
"This is the only county that has this in place that I'm aware of," Wallis said. "It's significant because it saves us a lot of money from huge fires. Moffat County's fire plan is a template for other places in Colorado who are thinking about doing this. It's a huge deal for us."
Moffat County's fire management plan is a tool that landowners and fire officials can use to let fires burn on private land. It's aim is to circumvent the fiery infernos that have ravaged Colorado in the last few years partly by leading rural residents to reduce potential fire hazards on their land.
The fire plan received 60 percent participation from landowners and cost the county $122,077 to date. Grant dollars funded another $195,000 to formulate the plan.
While contractors were working out the plan, they went ahead and updated the county's parcel maps -- a feat that benefits a variety of county emergency agencies.
"Actually our plan is unique in that it allows private landowners say on private property," said Ann Franklin, of the county's Natural Resources department. "This will improve community safety and reduce future costs of fire instead of losing a whole community."
Twenty-eight communities, or rural county housing developments, stand to gain from the fire management plan.
Franklin was assigned mainly to working on the fire plan, but commissioners will cut her position starting in late March because of budget restraints.
That begs the question how the fire management plan will be enforced.
Natural Resources have already received more than $70,000 in grants for 2004 to be used in conjunction with the fire plan. The department also has budgeted $15,000 next year to carry out the plan.
Commissioner Steele said he didn't support the fire management plan because he thought it was too expensive. He said the plan was more of a benefit to federal fire agencies, who would have to help bear the financial burden of the potential of an enormous fire inside county lines.
"Moffat County cannot afford to be in the business of fuel management," he said. "I'm sure it's the county's responsibility to do this."
Steele thought that residents should be charged with reducing potential fire hazards around their houses without county assistance. He also disagreed with the concept that the costs to suppress a fire far exceed the costs of letting it burn -- a statement that has long been used in support of proceeding with the fire plan.
But Commissioners Marianna Raftopoulos and Les Hampton were visibly thrilled to accept the accolades at Monday's meeting.
"The implementation of this is extremely important," Raftopoulos said. "We've been visionary and pro-active and developed a plan. It's quite an honor to be a part of that."
Franklin said later that day that total planning costs of $317,000, which include more than half of grant dollars, are well spent.
"Everybody looks at that price and has a problem with it," she said. "We like to say that if we protect just one home (from fire) then it's worth it."
Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or at email@example.com.