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Durango eyes new fire mitigation funding method

Subcommittee to weigh key issues, cost questions
The Durango City Council will form a subcommittee to investigate a new fire mitigation funding method, according to a study session Tuesday. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

With an eye on wildfire risk, Durango City Council is looking into a new fire mitigation funding method – one that received legislative support Tuesday.

The funding strategy essentially borrows money upfront to pay for forest treatment work that can happen on a larger scale, and faster pace, than work funded through traditional means, like government appropriations.

“The 416 Fire is the kind of fire we might’ve had historically on this landscape, and that caused a lot of turmoil here,” said William Baker, a research ecologist, during a study session Tuesday with City Council. “This is the kind of fire we are probably going to experience, even more so in the future. ... I’m worried we’ll have to evacuate the whole community.”

The city of Durango and La Plata County could be the first in the state to participate in the local version, called the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund. But some key issues, like cost and legal authority, need to be resolved.

The impact fund requires intergovernmental agreements and upfront funding from Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund members, which could range from $350,000 to $500,000. The cost estimate changes depending on the number of members, leadership decisions and grants involved.

In March, the county was considering the funding model but said it did not have the legal authority to be part of the Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund authority.

The Forest Health Project Financing bill, which gives counties authority to participate, passed the state Legislature and is awaiting signature from the governor.

The city of Durango said its financial commitments need to be further discussed and defined.

“It’s a complex idea that has a lot of opinions,” said City Manager José Madrigal during the study session. “I think it’s a great idea, I just think it’s going to take a lot of time for council to wrap their arms around it.”

City councilors unanimously supported forming a council subcommittee to explore the idea.

Councilor Melissa Youssef and Mayor Pro Tem Barbara Noseworthy said they would be willing to represent the council. City Council plans to officially form the subcommittee in an upcoming regular meeting.

Fire experts and Southwest Wildfire Impact Fund representatives supported the city’s efforts, sharing warnings about the need for evacuation plans, watershed protection and forest restoration.

“How do we manage these 100,000-acre, 200,000-acre fires that we never thought we’d be facing?” said Jason Lawhon with the San Juan National Forest during the study session. “It really does take a unified approach, so we just wanted to show support for initiatives that are looking at this in a comprehensive way.”


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