The seven candidates for the Evergreen Fire/Rescue board of directors are passionate about the community and the fire department, and they answered questions about wildfire mitigation, replacing Station 1, grants, firefighter morale and more.
Three seats are open on the EFR board. Two incumbents — Jeff deDisse and Mike Gregory — are running to retain their seats, and they are being challenged by five others: Kenny Erhardt, Wayne Hazeldine, Julie Ann Courim, Stacey Ballinger and John Putt. All have been heavily involved with EFR either as former volunteer firefighters or with Evergreen’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, and one was a dispatcher for Evergreen and later Jeffcom.
Station 1 replacement
The incumbents and Erhardt, a retired firefighter who continues to help with firefighter training, favor building a new Station 1 where the Evergreen Market used to be, saying the existing station will be hard to access during reconstruction on Highway 73 in 2023, doesn’t meet current safety standards for firefighters and some of the district’s trucks don’t fit into the bays. The new station, which will replace the station on Highway 73 just south of downtown Evergreen, is expected to cost about $7 million.
“Downtown Evergreen needs a station close by,” Erhardt said. “It needs to be a modern station to fit all the equipment and the personnel.”
The challengers were more cautious, saying building a new station was important, but they didn’t have enough information about the fire department’s budget to compare it with other priorities or to know whether now was the right time to construct the station.
Courim, who served on the Foothills Fire board of directors in the past, said one of the reasons she’s running for the board deals with fiduciary responsibility, including the percentage of the budget that goes to the station.
“My job (if elected) would be to research to find out what is the station’s budget,” Courim said. “Are we putting all our eggs in one basket? I don’t have that information.”
Putt, a retired firefighter who is now a real estate agent, added: “I look forward to being able to critically evaluate – should we put $8 million, $9 million into the new station or should we be putting it to something else?”
Wildland fire budget
The challengers said they couldn’t put a number on the percentage of EFR dollars that should be put toward the wildland fire budget, an issue that has been brought up by residents in the district as they worry about wildfire and evacuation.
Ballinger, a former dispatcher for Evergreen and later for Jeffcom, said all parts of the fire district’s budget should be looked at on an item-by-item basis.
“There is only so much money in this pot,” Ballinger said. “You have to ask what are the highest priorities for the community and what money is being spent on. The highest priority for me is evacuation routes. If 100 percent of the evacuation routes are impassable, that’s a problem.”
Gregory, a former volunteer firefighter, noted that EFR is growing its wildland fire programs exponentially.
“I don’t think we’re done growing that program, and we will continue to commit funds to the wildland program,” Gregory said. “It is essential.”
Hazeldine, a former firefighter, explained that he would like to see more money used to mitigate evacuation routes and to educate property owners about the need for mitigation.
Putt added that the most important thing about the wildfire budget was looking for better ways to leverage the fire district’s dollars to get as much done as possible.
DeDisse, a fifth-generation Evergreen resident, noted that wildfire was the biggest threat to his family’s ranch, so he understands residents’ concerns. He said other government agencies needed to do their part to help with mitigation.
The candidates discussed who is responsible for applying for grants to pay for mitigation.
DeDisse, a retired firefighter and the fire board president, said while he believes in grants to help with mitigation, EFR shouldn’t have the sole responsibility of writing the applications because it doesn’t have the staff. Gregory and Erhardt said EFR should consider hiring a full-time grant writer depending on whether money was available for that position.
Courim, Putt and Ballinger agreed that EFR should be the clearinghouse and leader in obtaining grants, saying the work needed to be done collaboratively between the fire department and the community.
Hazeldine added that grants can help the department to do more with fewer taxpayer dollars.
Volunteer firefighter recruitment, morale
With volunteerism in fire departments waning nationwide, the candidates agreed that volunteers were important to the community, and EFR needed to stem the tide of firefighters leaving the district with few entering the ranks. However, the department has embarked on an aggressive recruitment campaign to add firefighters that includes allowing recruits to train for specific areas of fire service.
Gregory was pleased with the department’s new recruitment strategy, saying whatever the department can do to make the volunteers happy was important, while deDisse advocated for leadership continuity to further the department’s recruiting and training goals.
Erhardt added that the department needed to make volunteer trainings enjoyable and to make volunteers feel important by listening to their concerns and ideas.
Hazeldine was concerned that the new recruiting and training plan is watering down the ranks.
“I believe they should go through the full academy,” Hazeldine said. “Education is key for firefighting.”
Courim said that at the fire board level, “One of the top things we can do is provide (volunteers) a voice through top level of the department. That’s a critical part of understanding the morale.”
- All candidates agreed that EFR’s community medicine was a good program, providing vital medical services to elderly by visiting them regularly.
- They agreed that EFR needed to work with all property owners including Denver Mountain Parks, Jeffco Open Space and private owners to make the areas safer from wildfire.