Is It Really All About Money?

A Report On The First Public Forum By Organizers Of The Proposed New Emergency Services District

Sheriff Mike Norris, who for two decades has encountered every imaginable hazard in Saguache County, has one big fear. “Fire scares the hell out of me,” he told the first public forum on the proposed Crestone Emergency Services District.

“One of my biggest fears has been fire in the Baca,” the sheriff continued. That fear almost became a tragic reality on June 16, when an arsonist started fires 30 minutes apart at South Crestone parking lot, North Crestone camp ground and the Karmapa stupa road. The last one was positioned to flare upslope in thick forest. “One shift in the wind would have been a catastrophe,” Norris said.

Quick response by trained volunteers with six fire departments – and by neighbors including Steve Smilack near the stupa road – quenched the fires at one acre each after Norris issued an “all call.” Criminal investigation of these and two more fires about an hour later near the town of Saguache is under way.

Norris was not a scheduled speaker at the forum, and he had no position on creation of the district, but he said he was there to support the community’s volunteer emergency responders. One problem the new district would attack is the different radio channels and dispatch centers used by the Baca Grande and Crestone fire departments as well as the ambulance service. “It makes sense for everybody to be on the same page,” Norris told the gathering.

Baca Grande Fire Chief Ben Brack, the lead speaker, said in dire emergencies “communication is always the first thing to break down.” (A disparity of radio frequencies contributed to the deaths of fire fighters at the Twin Towers.)

The proposed district is a common-sense solution to several other problems, including the tort liability of the strange private department owned by the Baca Grande Property Owners Association and the subsequent possibility that surrounding governmental departments will be prevented from assisting it in the future.

Still, the new district has its vocal opponents. Their problem, expressed in anger, was a basic distrust of government and resistance to any new taxes – consistent with the Tea Party movement. Christine Chandler objected to the tax increase (offset in part by reduction of POA dues) that will affect only property owners while others get a free ride. Another opponent, Steve Winn, implicitly threatened a law suit, asking, “What court can I go to?”

Many in the crowd of more than 50 Crestone-Baca residents supported Norris’ remarks with descriptions of the horror of wild fires. Some told stories expressing gratitude toward the community’s trained volunteers.

Chandler, on the other hand, wasn’t afraid of no fire, implying that Norris and others were using scare tactics to get the district created. At times screaming to be heard, she said she experienced the Mission Ridge fire at Durango a half dozen years ago and it involved explosive ponderosa stands, while here, in her words, “We’re in the desert.” Longtime fire fighters who understand the pinyon-juniper environment here were obviously astonished by this remark.

For most of the crowd the issue was not about money. Mark Jacobi, who served many years as Baca fire chief, said statistical thinking about finances doesn’t mean much when a fire gets going. “You can grouse about the money but everybody knows the incredible commitment of the volunteers,” he said. “When you talk about taxes keep in mind how much these people are giving for free.”

Brack in his opening remarks said in 61.5 square miles with about 750 houses and a summer population of perhaps 1,000, the  response to all hazards including medical emergencies falls on the shoulders of 45 regular volunteers – “a core group of people who work for the benefit of all.”

Addressing the town-country animosity evoked by the opponents, Brack said, “We share the roads, we share the stores, we share the views, and we share the emergencies. Why make it more difficult to deal with those emergencies together?”

In response to the suspicion that the town, with a population of about 135, will enrich itself by merger with the larger, richer Baca subdivision, former Mayor Kizzen Laki said the town is “perfectly happy doing what it’s doing,” and has no motivation except to help the Crestone and Baca volunteers work together better. The town now is part of the Northern Saguache County Fire Protection District, but Crestone will have more local control in the new district. Besides, she mentioned, she has friends and family living in the Baca.

As to the opposition fear – apparently greater than the fear of fire – that the district organizers will indulge in runaway tax increases, several in the audience were reassuring. Vince Palermo, known for doing his homework on local issues, reminded that the fire district board cannot raise taxes. Any mill levy including the initial 16 mills must be approved in a special  election.

The final note fell to Adam Kinney of Crestone, whom the even-handed moderator Matie Belle Lakish called upon last, noting he had quietly raised his hand several times. He told how when someone irresponsibly set a fire on his property, his home and wife and children were saved by selfless volunteer responders. He told how in another emergency they extricated his son from an oven, where he had become trapped.

“I trust you with my home. I trust you with my family. And I will trust you with my $250 a year,” he said.