Wildfire Suppression Response
When a fire occurs, a call will come into the BLM/USFS Grand Junction Regional Communications Center and they will dispatch to the appropriate agency. The Communications Center determines whether the fire is on public or private land. If it is on BLM or USFS land, the Mesa County Sheriff's Office Fire Team or fire districts may respond to assist in initial attack if there is confusion about the jurisdictional boundary of the fire. Once the jurisdiction is confirmed, Mesa County will continue to support the fire or be called off depending on the situation. A Type III incident team would be called in if the fire became too large for county resources to handle. A Type II team would be called in if all the local resources were insufficient. CSFS makes the call as to whether the fire qualifies for Emergency Fire Funds (EFF). An EFF declared incident does not have to have a Type II or I team called. There is no set mechanism that would require a Type II team, but the complexity dictates that a Type II team is needed in most situations. The Annual Operating Plan lays out how to order air resources, who has suppression responsibility, and how everything should take place in case of a wildfire.
In case of a fire, the Mesa County Communications Center has an Emergency Preparedness Network (EPN) that can telephone schools, businesses and homes. This is a reverse 911 system that can call up to 2,000 calls a minute and will call back up to three times to make sure the message gets through. The system cost $50,000 to install and also entails a monthly fee to maintain the database. The money for the network comes from the $.70 911 surcharge on all county residents' cellular and landline phone bills. The Communications Center sends out daily sheets about resources that are committed and where they are committed during fire season.
The sheriff's office and fire warden have great relationship with all players, especially the federal agencies. Planning and building relationships have been two of Anderson's foci as county fire warden. Others recognize the fruits of this relationships building. "We have probably one of the best relationships in the state with the federal agencies" said the county Emergency Manager . The county coordinates very well with the USFS/BLM Grand Junction Regional Communications Center. Anderson has tried to work with federal agencies and local fire districts to help cover the unusually large amount of land for which the sheriff's office is responsible.
USFS and BLM Suppression EffortsThe upper elevation regions in Mesa County are under the control of USFS, while the lower elevation lands are under the control of BLM and the county sheriff. The two agencies' jurisdictions are highly commingled.
BLM and USFS operate as an interagency fire management unit. BLM has six full or part time fuels crews made up of both USFS and BLM employees. USFS has no wildfire suppression capacity in the area so BLM is responsible for wildfire suppression on USFS lands. National Park Service is responsible for their land, but they have limited staff for fire work. BLM has a mutual aid agreement with NPS if a fire breaks out on the National Monument to respond and provide them with suppression resources. BLM also has a 24-hour mutual aid non-billing agreement with the county and other entities in the county. If a fire is close to BLM land and it is unclear under whose jurisdiction it falls, BLM will respond and not charge if it turns out to be on county land. Similarly, the county and fire department resources reciprocate. BLM hosts a number of wildfire courses that are open to any of the local fire department volunteers or employees. These include S-130, S-190, basic fire crew boss, engine boss, engine operator, intermediate fire behavior and medical unit leader classes. CSFS coordinates two statewide fire academies that attract and train hundreds of federal and private firefighters every year. BLM also has a part time fire prevention tech that does some education and outreach in the summer. BLM meets every two weeks with the County Fire Warden to keep up communication.
Wildfire Response in Mesa County
County Sheriff's Role
By statute, the sheriff is in charge of forest and prairie fires on all lands. This law, passed in 1903, predates the USFS, BLM and any concept of a taxing district or even income taxes. Originally it included all of what are now federal lands. Since the establishment of federal lands and fire protection districts, lands with their own fire protection funding are considered to be excluded from this law. Now the sheriff serves in a coordinating role in many counties, assisting fire departments in getting the manpower, equipment and funding for fires that exceed their capability. If a wildfire occurs within an existing fire district, then that fire department is responsible for the first response. If a wildfire occurs outside of a fire district, then the sheriff's office responds. Mesa County is unique because a greater portion of the population resides outside of covered fire districts than in most places. The past two sheriffs have taken their wildfire role very seriously and so Mesa County is seen as more responsive than some other counties. In Mesa County, they have a designated fire warden and developed their own fire response unit to coordinate fire response on private lands.
The Mesa County Sheriff's Office Fire Team is run by Lt. John Anderson, the County Fire Warden. Anderson oversees his own internal fire team and also the other county employees who volunteer to fight fire. They have three fire engines and two support vehicles at their disposal. In addition to coordinating his own fire response team, Anderson is credited with increasing the professionalism of the volunteer fire departments throughout the county. Anderson has made a push to get many volunteers red carded and cross trained in 130 and 190 fire behavior and firefighter training classes and now about 75% are red carded. Every year the county budgets $10,000 to send members to the Colorado Wildfire Academy. Working with CSFS, Anderson applies for Rural Fire Assistance (RFA, from the BLM) and Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA, from CSFS) cost sharing assistance every year and the fire departments rely heavily on that money for equipment.
The volunteer fire departments fall under the jurisdiction of the sheriff, because they are not recognized local governments. The county underwrites $4,000 per year for insurance for volunteer fire departments, because when a wildfire occurs they are working on behalf of the sheriff. There are great pressures on the local and volunteer fire departments. They have to be qualified for four things. They have to have state certification for different categories of Emergency Management Service, hazardous material management, structural firefighting National Fire Protection Association qualifications, and National Wildfire Coordinating Group wildfire qualifications. Wildfire is a small percentage of what they do. Additional burdens have been put on fire departments with the Homeland Security Act.
Mesa County Office of Emergency Management
Kimberly Parker-Bullen is the County Emergency Manager and her main duties for the county include disaster planning. Parker-Bullen has a wildfire background which makes her more attuned to wildfire risk than other emergency mangers. She works closely with the sheriff's office and the Fire Warden, who has responsibility for fire on private property in Mesa County.
Mesa County Emergency Management works with American Red Cross on Firewise community meetings and projects and identifies areas of homeowners to target. They have not undertaken any fuel reduction on their own. "The American Red Cross has been going out and doing the community meetings and doing the Firewise program for us that's primarily due to just manpower and time". The County OEM now is trying to identify areas in the county that coincide with USFS and BLM properties where they can work with adjacent homeowners. These would be high priority areas for joint private and federal land coordinated fuels treatment.
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Copyright©2003 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University