Ready for a disaster

County hopes to use grant to create all-hazards plan

When disaster strikes, it's good to be ready.

That's the rationale of Paul Hollar, deputy emergency manager for Montezuma County.

Hollar submitted a grant application to the Colorado Department of Public Safety last week, requesting funds to create a county-wide all-hazards mitigation plan.

Shortly after being appointed to the position last year, Hollar attended a conference in Denver, where he learned that 56 of 64 counties in Colorado had comprehensive emergency plans in place. Montezuma County was one of the few outliers.

Disaster mitigation and response are once again popular topics of conversation in the county, prompted by the Weber Fire that engulfed 10,000 acres southeast of Mancos last summer. No homes were destroyed, but dozens were threatened and the flames caused more than $5 million in damages.

Drafting a hazards plan would require the services of an outside consultant, Hollar said, with a high cost estimate of $60,000.

Montezuma County would only be responsible for $10,000, he added - $5,000 cash and $5,000 worth of in-kind time or resources.

"That's the high end. Hopefully we can bring down the cost to be less expensive. We'll put it out to bid," he said.

Creating a hazards plan is time-consuming because it involves traversing the county to identify the highest risk spots for natural and human-caused disasters. Wildfire is the obvious threat here, Hollar said, but infrequent floods, earthquakes and tornadoes can also come into play.

"We don't have to worry about hurricanes or tsunamis," he said.

A hazards plan typically has recommendations for steps the county - and any other jurisdiction involved - can take to mitigate, or diminish the severity, of future damage.

For example, transmission towers and miles of power lines were threatened, and a few knocked down, by the Weber Fire. Now Empire Electric Association is looking to bury some of its cables securely underground.

"When we get the chance, we try to bury," said member services manager Doug Sparks. "But it does mean digging trenches (four feet deep), so you cause some disturbance."

Sparks said the decision to bury power lines, versus the more traditional above-ground pole method, comes down to a cost-benefit analysis. Do you make your lines near-impervious to disaster, or do you keep them more accessible and the earth intact?

After the Weber Fire, Empire buried all its lines on Menefee Mountain. Likewise, it has grounded lines along the east and west forks of the Dolores River because of falling tree branches causing frequent outages in the past.

"In the (hazards) plan, you come up with a list of (mitigation) projects you'd like to carry out, and prioritize them," Hollar said. "There's no obligation to complete any of them, just to address them as time and money allow."

Hollar wants to act quickly to move the process along. He should hear back from CDPS this week or next regarding the grant. If approved, he will formally request the $10,000 match from the Board of County Commissioners and put out the bid for a consultant by mid-March.

The finished hazards plan would need to be submitted to CDPS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency by Sept. 30.

"The aim is to get all our key stakeholders to participate - the fire districts, law enforcement, municipalities, water districts. By signing on they become eligible for different pools of grant money for (mitigation) work down the road," Hollar said.