Mesa County case study
Improve Fire Prevention and Suppression Reduce Hazardous FuelsRestore Fire Adapted Ecosystems Promote Community AssistanceSummary



WGA Goal - Improve Fire Prevention and Suppression

Actions to meet goal

  • Improve firefighting capability/readiness to protect communities and the environment
  • Reduce incidence of injury to life and property resulting from catastrophic wildland fire
  • Expand outreach and education to homeowners
  • Develop a consistent preparedness model among partners

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 Efforts

The 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

WUI MapBy 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.


Mesa County Fire Planning

Under encouragement from the BLM, Mesa County is now in the process of developing a fire plan. CSFS has been contracted by the County Office of Emergency Management to create a county fire management plan that details Mesa County's policy on fire management for prescribed burns, fuels management and natural ignition burns on lands owned by the state or county. The BLM is paying for the creation of the plan to assist them in their burn policies. The goal by the federal agencies is to allow wildfire to resume its natural role as a landscape modifying force when possible. The plan uses the polygon approach to categorize areas for suppression activity. There are four classifications of polygons. A-polygons are areas where wildland fire is highly undesirable. B polygons are areas where wildland fire is undesirable under current conditions. Fire prevention and suppression efforts will be aggressive in A and B areas. C-polygons are areas where wildland fire is acceptable and often desirable. D-polygons are areas where wildland fire is acceptable or desirable and where the potential for damage is insignificant. However, since Mesa County does not have the manpower, training, equipment, or funding for a "managed fire" program that their federal land partners do, full suppression of wildland fires on private and state lands will be the policy. The plan will identify areas of private land where indirect suppression may be considered as a suppression tactic. Phase 2 of the planning process would go beyond the polygon classification, in which CSFS will also include interagency agreements, annual operating plans and mobilization plans, as well as a comprehensive review of all state laws regarding wildfire and several scenarios of escalating wildfire as "guidelines for interaction" for the sheriff's department, but that has not yet happened. Often the primary reason counties want a fire plan is so they have the flexibility to manage fires, as opposed to having only the option to suppress them, but that is not the case in Mesa County. The sheriff's office doesn't have the resources to manage wildland or prairie fires and will continue with full suppression policies. The criteria for Mesa County is safety and cost saving rather than resource benefit. At this stage, the county fire plan will mainly be a tool for BLM's burn policies, and a guide for where the highest hazard and highest value private lands are in the urban interface. Phase 2 would extend beyond suppression into mitigation planning.

In Colorado, the county sheriff has a statutory responsibility (CRS 30-10-513) for the suppression of "forest and prairie" fires on private and state lands. However, fire departments and fire protection districts tax for suppression and have suppression capability. In 2000, private land grazing interests passed a law that allows the sheriff to manage or suppress wildfires, if the county has fire management plan. In other words, sheriffs no longer had a statutory responsibility only to suppress fires if there is a plan in place that categorizes how fire can burn in the county. Federal land management agencies have allowed wildfire to play its function as a natural force in vegetation management on their lands. The change in the Colorado law was thought particularly useful for fires that originate on federal land and cross onto private land, where the landowner considers the fire to be a benefit to the vegetation. However a problem arises in Mesa County, and others, due to the inequity of funding for fire suppression and management between federal, private and state lands. Federal land management agencies do not have a restricted budget for fire suppression, but counties and the state of Colorado are restricted. Moreover, several liability issues complicate who would be responsible for fires that escape, if they are allowed to burn. For these reasons, CSFS in Mesa County recommends a full suppression policy for wildfires on private and state lands. This approach may be modified by using an indirect attack method. Direct attack involves line building and other tactics such as aerially applied water and retardant directly on the fire's edge. Indirect attack uses natural or man-made fuel breaks or topographic features to reinforce before the fire arrives. Direct attack is more expensive and used when high value area are endangered. Indirect attack can be used as a cost-conserving tactic.

American Red Cross Interagency Wildfire Mitigation Program

American Red Cross works in partnership with CSFS, BLM, and USFS, in Mesa County and surrounding western slope counties, to deliver wildfire preparedness and hazard mitigation education in Wildland Urban Interface neighborhoods. The program was piloted in nearby counties. In October 2003, John Bear, ARC Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, was successful in getting a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the American Red Cross, the National Fire Protection Association and Wildland Fire Management Agencies. This MOU created a formal partnership to educate homeowners and others who reside in the WUI to assume a greater personal responsibility and not to rely entirely upon emergency response organizations. Through its network of nationwide local chapters, the ARC, in coordination with various wildland fire management agencies, will deliver community-based education programs that are designed to reduce the impacts of wildland fire on private lands.

The development of the national program came about through trial and error learning in Delta and Montrose Counties, which neighbor Mesa County. Education materials were developed in spring 2001 with $18,000 in funding from the BLM under the encouragement of Red Cross national. The work is through existing Red Cross volunteer networks to get the word out, do trainings and in some cases, help do actual home assessments and thinning work. Working with the homeowners is key and learning how to deal with potential negative reactions has been a large part of the training. The prevailing attitude within most communities they work with is denial or an inability to recognize the problem. The other prevalent attitude is, "I moved into the forest for the forest, not my house, I don't care if my house burns". In these cases, ARC is trying to emphasize forest health. "The axiom that we use is, 'I used to look at the forest, now I look into it, from my house'. And it's interesting, I thought I had seven wild turkeys, I found out now I have thirty. I thought I had three deer, I found out I have thirteen. It's much better that I'm looking into the forest rather than at it, from my house.".

ARC does the training, assessments working with local fire departments and CSFS. In Colorado, Red Cross works under the supervision of the Colorado State Forest Service to do wildfire mitigation education. CSFS gave Red Cross $7,000 for educational material in FY 2001. Red Cross and Rural Fire Department volunteers wishing to help assess wildfire threat to property and help landowners identify mitigation opportunities are trained by the Colorado State Forest Service and Red Cross with assistance from the federal agencies.

On a more local scale, ARC is making headway in Mesa and the surrounding counties due to the hiring of John Bear to oversee education and outreach efforts. John Bear is the Emergency Services Director for the Western chapter of the ARC, which covers a ten county region. Part of his salary is funded through BLM to address wildfire mitigation issues. Bear works mainly through CSFS or local volunteer or fire protection districts. While the ARC program is aimed at a variety of activities, Bear says, "My primary role is to educate the homeowner." Bear has been trained on how to do assessments for defensible space and how to work effectively with the community through the ARC program. Glade Park, Gateway, and Plateau Valley have been the areas of emphasis in Mesa County. The work in Mesa County is just getting started. They haven't been as active as some of the surrounding counties, like Delta and Montrose where this program was piloted. Now that Bear has funding from the BLM to do the wildfire mitigation work, he will be freer to pursue work in Mesa County.

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Copyright©2003 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University

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