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Small fire departments in Colorado foothills look to combine forces as threats grow

Small Departments in Foothills fighting fires look to combine forces as threats grow
Small Departments in Foothills fighting fires look to combine forces as threats grow 03:06

Three fire departments in Colorado's foothills are looking at combining forces as the demand for services and fire threats grow, while volunteers are harder to find.

"Combining into one district I think we can more effectively operate," said North Fork Fire Protection District Chief Curt Rogers. 

Rogers' small department centered in Buffalo Creek in which he is the only paid employee, would combine with the slightly larger Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District based out of Morrison, and the Elk Creek Fire Protection District in Conifer, where about half of the members are paid. 


The three districts have commissioned a study completed last year and a survey released last month. The survey found about seventy percent support for the idea.

"I do see a need for a long-term fire department in the area because of the development that has happened," said longtime Conifer resident, Mike Nichols. 

Volunteers make up the core of the three departments.  

"I am not envious of the volunteers. Volunteerism in the fire departments has been really declining nationally and we're struggling with that, I think all three agencies," Rogers said. 

Fire academies are seeing fewer people. 

"Used to be we would get seven to ten people and now we're getting two or three people for that academy," Nichols said. 


Part of that is a relatively small population in the foothills who work in their own communities. Another part is more demanding employment and more demanding calls from the departments when people do volunteer. 

"For example, in my district when you run a call, say you do an ambulance transport, you're probably going to be involved with that call for four to five hours. It's just difficult for people to set aside that much time," he said. 

At the same time, explosive fires have become more common in Colorado. 

"That remains our number one risk across all three fire protection districts today," said Dan Hatelstad, a battalion chief for Inter-Canyon Fire.  

For nearly twenty years, the Hayman fire of 2002, which burned through a large part of the North Fork district, was Colorado's largest wildfire. 

It's been surpassed and surpassed again in the past three years. 

"We're seeing wildland fire go very big, very quickly," Rogers said. "Having the ability to rapidly respond to that and catch it in the early stages is highly important."


There are other changes as well. 

"We have seen a doubling in the number of calls and the acuity of those calls," said Hatelstad about his thirty years of fighting fires with Inter-Canyon Fire. 

Medical calls have increased and the population of residents is aging. 

There is clearly a need for more paramedics, but completing training is expensive and time-consuming. 

Many who do earn certification may be inclined to take full-time jobs with other departments. Other costs are rising as well, like firefighting equipment and insurance. Departments are strapped.

"I do get concerned of the encouragement of commercialization in our area," said Nichols about expanding fire service. 

Combining departments would require a vote and likely mean a mill levy as a singular agency is created and more full-time people added. 

Other departments in Colorado have combined in recent years, often for cost-saving reasons. This one is more about increasing protection. 


"The future is changing. There's no question that fire departments will be challenged in many different ways down the road," said Hatelstad. 

Rogers also touched on the total outlook of joining forces saying, "I don't think we're at crisis yet, but I think we need to look to the future and be prepared because I would describe it as fragile right now," Rogers said.

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