Official opposes fire plan

Steele says cost is too high for project that is not county's responsiblity

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Winning a national fire award doesn't mean much to Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele.

Steele, who has long voiced opposition to the county's fire management plan, thinks it cost the county too much money for something that wasn't the county's responsibility to begin with. It's not the county's business to protect private homes from the threat of wildfire, he said.

On Monday, the Moffat County Board of Commissioners learned that the fire plan had been recognized by the U.S. Department of Interior for "Excellence in Collaboration."

"The fire plan award is for being the most cooperative government entity in the United States," Steele said Wednesday. "We can't afford to be the most cooperative entity with the Bureau of Land Management."

Steele said he didn't voice objections to the plan or the award during the commission's meeting because he didn't want to rain on anybody's parade -- especially county employees who have worked hard to formulate and execute the plan at the direction of the commission.

And Steele has no plans to challenge the $15,000 the commission set aside for the plan this year -- part of a "compromise budget" he agreed to with Commissioners Marianna Raftopoulos and Les Hampton. But Steele said he would not agree to spend any more than that, which could lead to a rare split vote if the commission revisits funding for the plan this year.

The county has spent $122,077 on the plan since 2001. That figure doesn't include a portion of the salary of a county Department of Natural Resources employee whose job duties included formulating and implementing the plan, Steele said. Budget constraints have left little money to implement the plan, he said.

Jeff Comstock, the county's director of the Natural Resources Department, said he's heard complaints that the fire plan favors the BLM because it alleviates the agency's responsibility to suppress fires. The plan allows the BLM to let fires burn across private land if they have permission from the landowner. Before the plan was formulated, all fires on private land had to be suppressed.

Moffat County has budgeted $15,000 to begin implementing the fire plan in 2004. The county has banked $30,500 in grant money from the BLM, and a $40,000 state Forest Service grant is pending.

While Steele is adamant that he won't agree to spend more than the $15,000, Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos is taking a "wait and see" approach.

Raftopoulos, who initiated work on the plan with Hampton and former Commissioner T. Wright Dickinson, said commissioners may look at the number again once the ending fund balance for 2003 is confirmed. The commission is awaiting the results of an audit to tell them how much unspent money from last year is available for 2004.

"In the budget, that ($15,000) is what we counted on. We're hoping to use that for matching funds, so we'll just have to wait and see," Raftopoulos said. She expressed optimism that the ending fund balance would be better than the $1.7 million the commission anticipated.

Comstock said the fire plan leaves the county the option of managing fire exactly as it has done before, which would cost the county no extra money. However, fire management is a popular issue among federal legislators at this time, and if Moffat County doesn't seize grant money that is currently available, it may be gone in a few years.

The plan's implementation will be determined by the amount of available money, Raftopoulos said. There are no goals to reach in 2004. Rather, the county will do only as much work as funds allow.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or by e-mail at rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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