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County considers fire prevention instead of insurance policy

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Instead of paying into an insurance policy meant to pay for suppression of wildland fires, Morgan County is considering participating in mitigation projects instead.

Trent Bristol, Wasatch Front area manager for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, presented legislative changes to the Morgan County Council July 5.

The legislative changes were spurred by the particularly bad fire season of 2012, Bristol said.  The governor asked the state to find a way to prevent catastrophic fires from happening.  The request lead to Senate Bill 56 in 2015 (a comprehensive plan to reduce wild fires), and Senate Bills 122 and 212 in 2016.  Bristol said the two-year process allowed for collaboration with the Utah Fire Chiefs Association as well as both the Association of Counties and Utah League of Cities and Towns.

The result is a draft voiding current cooperative agreements between the state and county calling for an insurance fund in exchange for a new cooperative agreement where the state will pay for fire suppression costs while counties work to mitigate their own wildfire risks.

“It won’t change the way we fight the fire at all, just the way we pay for it,” Bristol told the council.

Under the new agreement, the state will assume the costs of all large and extended-attack fires.  Local fire departments will still be on the hook for initial attack of the fire, but when the local department feels it is beyond their capability, the state will step in both physically and financially.  Local fire departments will still have “a seat at the command table,” Bristol said.

Morgan County will have to put $101,987 into fire prevention efforts, compared to the $105,000 it was used to paying into the insurance pool.  The new amount is based on a risk assessment as well as the 10-year average of fire activity in the county and can be met by the monetary amount of volunteer efforts and in-kind donations.  For example, the county can choose to educate the public, reduce fire fuel, increase preparedness, build up their fire department, or “anything that reduces the risk of starting a new fire in the county,” Bristol said.

“We are already doing a lot of it already,” County Councilman Logan Wilde said.  “The hard part (going forward) will be tracking and documenting it.”

He suggested that Eagle Scouts and other volunteers can help participate in fire prevention programs, and that the county can be credited for up to $23 per hour of volunteer work.

The $101,987 does not include Morgan City, which would have to pay $1,200 for participation if city leaders choose to participate.  The county’s portion would include Mountain Green.

Competitive state grants will continue, but the county cannot use grant money toward its monetary obligation.  The county will not get credit for improving culinary water systems, existing county employees, existing county programs, or individual structures.

Bristol said the state is committed to paying all expenses for aircraft costs linked to fire suppression, if it is in the initial stage or not.

The new agreement recommends but does not require cities and counties to pursue cost recovery for human-caused fires, asking those who started the fire to pay for suppression costs.

“It helps with the prevention message,” Bristol said.

If Morgan County agrees to participate in the newly drafted cooperative agreement, the policy will start Jan. 1, 2017.  Morgan City will have until June 30, 2017, to decide if it wants to take part in the new agreement. Participation in the new agreement would also mean the county will have until 2019 to develop a community wildfire protection plan.

County leaders are leaning toward accepting the new agreement.

“If we choose not to do this, if there is a major fire, we foot the entire bill,” said Council Chairman Austin Turner, who noted the need to present fire risk to the Union Pacific Railroad that stretches through the county.

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