Basalt fire’s opposition to Gems proposal fuels criticism
BASALT – A group of Basalt residents that includes two Town Council members is questioning the fire district’s use of public funds in its effort to get specific lands removed from the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal.
Council members Pete McBride and Karin Teague, as well as 14 other town residents, criticized the fire district for making a significant expenditure without holding public meetings to see if their direction was consistent with their constituents’ views. Teague and McBride signed the letter as individuals rather than council members. Former council members Chris Seldin, Amy Capron and Chris Lane also signed the letter.
“As Basalt residents who have respected and supported the fire department through tax dollars over many years, we would appreciate an opportunity to hear from the Basalt Fire District on these questions and concerns,” the letter says (see Letters to the Editor).
Fire district officials said Thursday they have every intention of letting the public hear their side of the story, starting in a series of public meetings later this month. They will meet with the Pitkin County commissioners on Tuesday, May 25. They will meet with the Basalt Town Council on Tuesday, June 8, and they intend to host a public open house sometime in between. They are also trying to arrange a meeting with the Eagle County commissioners.
No meetings have been held yet because the district is compiling information the public will need to assess its position, said John Young, a member of the fire district’s board of directors.
The fire district had to scramble because it was unaware until late in the winter that Basalt Mountain was in the Hidden Gems Wilderness proposal, Young said. The fire district expressed its concerns to Wilderness Workshop, a leader of the coalition promoting the Wilderness plan, but no compromise was reached.
“This was unanticipated on our part,” Young said. “This was not even on our radar screen until two months ago.”
The fire district wants to prevent Wilderness designation for about 12,500 acres of Basalt Mountain, along with a smaller amount of Red Table Mountain paralleling Fryingpan Road, as proposed in the Hidden Gems plan.
Fire district officials contend their ability to fight fires is impeded in Wilderness and that reducing the build-up of fuels will be impossible. Hidden Gems officials counter that federal Wilderness legislation clearly allows firefighting in Wilderness.
The fire district hired a forestry expert to identify the types of fuels on Basalt Mountain and typical weather patterns that affect it. He will also study possible consequences of a major fire on the mountain, which towers over the town of Basalt and unincorporated parts of Eagle County.
“If he comes back and says there’s absolutely no danger, we’d rethink our position,” said fire district board member Bob Guion. “We haven’t dictated the outcome of his work.”
Guion and Young aggressively defended the district’s expenditure of up to $50,000 for their study and public education effort – which some critics have labeled a “PR campaign.”
“Our biggest issue is the life safety of our constituents,” Young said. When something potentially affects the district’s ability to protect lives and property, he feels they have the responsibility to take action.
The Basalt fire department’s records indicate its firefighters have responded 51 times, mostly to lightning strikes, on Basalt Mountain and the portion of Red Tables Mountain in its district. If the department loses its ability to respond to lightning-caused fires in a timely manner, they question how they will be able to protect homes.
“That’s why it was relatively easy for us not to anguish over this [expenditure],” Young said.
The three legs of duty for any fire district is prevention, education and suppression, Guion said.
“The fire district does a lot more than fight fires when you call 911,” he said.
Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson, Guion and Young all questioned why two Basalt Town Council members would criticize other elected officials without first approaching them to learn more about the issue.
“It’s just sad that they took a position without hearing all aspects of this,” Thompson said.
McBride was reportedly traveling Thursday and couldn’t be contacted via e-mail. Teague, who is listed on the Wilderness Workshop board of directors, responded to a request for an interview by saying via e-mail she was leaving town for a long weekend and wasn’t available.