by Rick Langenberg:
Officials of a financially-strapped county government will soon learn how much monetary help they will receive from the feds in grappling with Colorado’s most devastating fire in the history of the state.
According to Teller County Emergency Management Director Steve Steed, Teller’s expenses have already totaled more than $100,000 for the cost of handling the Waldo Canyon fire that led to the evacuation of about 5,000 residents in Woodland Park, Crystola and the lower Ute Pass area. These costs, according to Steed, came from employee overtime that exceeded normal operational duties and extra resources used to establish and implement pre-evacuation and emergency plans. Many parts of Teller County, including nearly the entire city of Woodland Park, were placed on a pre-evacuation status. In addition, daily meetings were held to inform residents of
the Waldo Canyon fire situation, which seriously threatened Woodland Park for several days.
Recently, the Teller government scored a big victory when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that Teller County was added to the presidential disaster declaration for the Colorado fires, which torched hundreds of homes and killed several people. Initially, Teller was not listed in President Obama’s original order that declared the Waldo Canyon and High Park fires as major disasters in late June. At that time, reimbursement for eligible, disaster related emergency protective measures and disaster unemployment assistance and crisis counseling were approved for these burn areas, which included El Paso and Larimer counties.
But unfortunately, Teller was left out of the loop, even after President Obama toured the fire-ravaged area. As a result, Steed and other emergency response leaders launched a coordinated effort to receive federal funding assistance for the recent spree of fires that strained local resources. “We put a lot of time into submitting paper work and documenting our expenses,” admitted Steed, who formerly headed the emergency operations for the city of Denver under the administration of then Mayor John Hickenlooper.
County officials succeeded in getting added to the disaster declaration for the Waldo Canyon fire. However, the county won’t receive any monies for the Springer fire or for the arson-related blazes that occurred throughout Teller
for a several week period. An ongoing investigation continues into the rash of arsons in Teller County, and a local award fund, orchestrated by Park State Bank & Trust has already exceeded the $10,000 mark. Now, the big question hinges on how much money the county can snag from the feds. “We really don’t know how much money we will receive yet,” said Steed, who doesn’t expect a final decision for about two months. But he contended that the county government is hoping for a reimbursement that nears the $100,000 range.
According to Steed, local businesses can’t qualify for these funds. Instead, he said other government loan programs are available for business operators, impacted by the Waldo Canyon blaze. For nearly a week and a half, local commerce reached a standstill due to the Waldo blaze, which closed down Hwy. 24. Travel between Colorado Springs and Woodland Park took more than two and a half hours during the fire.
The county has a lot at stake. Besides extra costs for grappling with a spree of serious wildfires this summer, the county government got walloped by an extra $135,000 in election expenses for the primary and upcoming Nov. 6 presidential contests. The county, under the direction of the Secretary of State Scott Gessler, has been forced to hire election experts to oversee the clerk’s office in handling the Nov. 6 vote. These extra expenses weren’t anticipated, according to the county commissioners. In fact, the summer of 2012 has not been a promising time for Teller County financially. Many other groups also faced major challenges in the wake of the Waldo Canyon blaze.
According to a FEMA press release, non-profit groups that assisted people during the Waldo Canyon fire may be eligible for the funds.
The state’s Office of Emergency Management and FEMA is in the process of contacting county government entities and certain non-profits about the procedures to qualify for this assistance. The assistance is provided under FEMA’s Public Assistance Program. This program can provide grants to local government, state agencies and certain non-profits for eligible disaster related expenses.
According to government officials, FEMA pays no less than 75 percent of the eligible costrs. The non federal share is made up of local resources. The state administers the program. Colorado counties with a current and adopted local hazard mitigation plan, such as Teller County, are eligible for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.