Wildfire season

Douglas County expands helicopter service contract

New agreement part of county’s ‘hard, heavy, fast’ wildfire strategy

File photo
Douglas County has expanded its exclusive contract with Rampart Helicopter Services in anticipation of another dry fire season in the region.
File photo
Douglas County has expanded its exclusive contract with Rampart Helicopter Services in anticipation of another dry fire season in the region
Photo
Posted

In anticipation of yet another dry fire season, the county is expanding the scope of a contract it has with a helicopter service used to fight wildfires.

At a March 11 meeting, the county commissioners unanimously approved a request from the Office of Emergency Management to replace the existing agreement with Rampart Helicopter Services. The new contract would expand exclusive use time period for up to six months starting on April 1 through the end of September.

Under exclusive use, the service is guaranteed to be available when needed in case a wildfire ignites in Douglas County. The new agreement also expands the scope of services to law enforcement, public safety and search-and-rescue missions. The agreement is an improvement on last year’s agreement, which limited the exclusive use time period to two months, according to commissioner Roger Partridge. The county can also still use the company on a call-when-needed basis.

“It’s an insurance policy,” said Tim Johnson, Douglas County director of emergency management. “These guys are very busy. There’s a possibility that they would be gone during a critical time” and would be unavailable without the exclusive-use provision.

The expanded agreement is part of the county’s wildfire prevention strategy, with commissioners and emergency management staff citing a refrain of “hard, heavy and fast” to describe its plan. Annual costs will not exceed $806,500, according to the contract. Last year the county budgeted around $300,000 for the service and used $229,000.

The preventative cost is offset by the possibility of greater loss in the event of a catastrophic fire, Partridge said. The new agreement comes after wildfires have struck surrounding counties in the last few years, such as the Black Forest fire in El Paso County that killed two people, destroyed hundreds of homes and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

The cost to fight the fire in El Paso County last year was around $9 million.

“I don’t think it ever became as obvious to me (how necessary the service is) until tragedy struck surrounding counties,” commissioner Jill Repella said at the meeting. “The aftermath is a negative hit to a county’s budget.”

The county commission also awarded payments in lieu of taxes, federal funding for local governments that help offset property tax losses from non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries, to five fire districts that provide coverage for the Pike National Forest Lands in the county. The county has paid $50,000 to these districts each year since 2002, but increased the funding to $100,000 in 2014. The amount of funding is based on the number of calls the agencies receive.

The five fire districts who received a slice of that funding were Mountain Communities Fire Protection District with $33,000, West Douglas Fire Protection District with $26,000, North Fork Fire Protection District with $20,000, Jackson 105 Fire Protection District with $14,000 and Larkspur Fire Protection District with $7,000.

The county is also providing a free wildfire workshop, focusing on mitigation and preparation, from 9 a.m. to noon on April 5 at the Douglas County Events Center, located at 500 Fairgrounds Drive in Castle Rock. The workshop will provide information regarding wildfire hazard reduction techniques, community wildfire mitigation and preparedness efforts, and evacuation planning and insurance needs. Interested residents should RSVP for the workshop by March 28 to jalexand@douglas.co.us. For more information, visit www.douglas.co.us/building/wildfire/

“The Front Range is now experiencing more intense, larger fires,” Johnson said. “When it’s our turn in the barrel, so to speak, we want to be ready for that.”