Natural Resources to ask for assistant position back

After investing years of work and thousands of taxpayers' dollars to create a fire management plan aimed at preventing the catastrophic fires that have ravaged other parts of the state and the nation, Jeff Comstock is worried Moffat County won't be able to carry out the plan.

Comstock is the director of the county's two-person Nat-ural Resources Dep-artment. In December he learned that his assistant's position will be eliminated in March. Moffat County commissioners cut the position to balance the 2004 budget.

But without the assistant Ann Franklin, Comstock said he needs direction on how to delegate the responsibilities of the county's Wildland Fire and Fuel Management Plan.

Comstock has scheduled a workshop with commissioners to discuss the details.

"My first and foremost priority is to try to get Ann's job back," Comstock said. "Then I'll ask them to look at spreading the workload out among other departments. We have the plan in place now; we just need people to carry it out."

The first phase of Moffat County's three-year fire plan was launched in 2001. So far, the plan has cost the county $122,077. Grant money funded another $195,000. About 60 percent of rural landowners have participated in the plan, which recently won a state award and is in the running for national recognition.

The plan is touted as a tool that landowners and fire officials can use to let fires burn on private land. It aims 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.

Landowner Dave Johnson has participated in the county's fire planning process.

He is strongly in support of letting fire burn on his property south of Maybell. But even without a fire plan he would burn small swaths of his 10,000 acres and make the necessary changes to create a defensible space around his house to protect it from the potential of a spreading wildfire.

"I can take care of things myself," he said. "I don't really rely on anybody."

To the credit of the county's fire plan, Johnson said it hasn't had a chance to be tested because of fire bans in the last couple years.

"I'm anxious to see some good come out of it," he said.

The Natural Resources Department has 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 Darryl Steele said he didn't support the fire management plan because he thought it was too expensive. He said the plan is 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 at a previous meeting. "I'm not sure it's the county's responsibility to do this."

Steele thought that residents should bear the responsibility of 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 Steele's views are outnumbered on this issue on the three-member board.

Commissioner Les Hampton said he was in support of bringing back the position for a Natural Resource assistant.

"I view it as stewardship and extremely important," Hampton said.

The county's ability to fund the Natural Resources assistant will come down to money. "We'll know better when get the end of the year fund balance," Hampton said. "I think it will look better than we've predicted."

The commission is awaiting a final accounting of 2003 to find out how much unspent money carried over to 2004. Commissioners say they should have that figure in March.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or by email at ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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