A new fire code is being crafted for unincorporated La Plata County that some worry could increase the cost of
development but many say is needed to update the current regulations, which are more than 20 years old.
Last year, a commission was created by county commissioners to review and prepare the code for adoption. The
commission, which includes the chiefs of the county's four fire districts, began work in September.
The model they are working on is the 2003 International Fire Code, but the debate is about what tweaks should be made
to make it right for La Plata County.
One of the most bedeviling issues has been water flows or the amount of water and pressure available to fight fires.
In rural La Plata County, a more stringent standard could be difficult to meet.
The issue has been that there's a lot of areas in the county that don't have central fire hydrant systems," said
architect Michael Bell, who was appointed to serve on the fire code commission.
In the case where adequate water flows are not available, buildings could be required to have sprinkler systems.
The standard would apply only to new commercial buildings, multiple-family dwellings or subdivisions. It could also
be required as part of a remodel or expansion of an existing building in those categories.
Steve Osborne, a member of the fire code commission and owner of the Building Specialties Store, said the new code
could increase the cost of development.
Anyone thinking about building or remodeling should be aware of what's going on here," he said.
The 2003 International Fire Code, which was first released in 2000, is more than 400 pages long and covers everything
from open burning to exit signs. Officials said it is separate but complementary to the building code.
The city of Durango and town of Bayfield already have adopted the 2003 international code.
Alvie Moore, the city's chief building inspector, said meeting the water flow requirements, which vary based on the
size and type of building, have not been difficult in Durango.
We're on public water," he said.
Butch Knowlton, director of the county's building department, said crafting a code that works for the county is more
It's a big task because there's so many varying conditions that exist in our community," he said.
Rich Graeber, chief of Upper Pine Fire Protection District, said he understands people are concerned about the new
standards but believes the transition will be much easier than anticipated.
Any time you put regulation on something, people are going to ask questions," he said.
He said some residents in the unincorporated areas erroneously assume they have adequate water available to fight a
People move here from all over the place and have some expectations that they're going to have services out there,"
But Osborne said sprinkler systems, which could be required if adequate flows aren't available, could add thousands
of dollars to the cost of building a home and shouldn't be forced on people.
The homeowners should decide their own level of risk," he said.
He argued that the systems are more likely to freeze and cause water damage then they are to save it from burning.
When it comes to water flows, even the standard set by the international code can be inadequate. Last year a luxury
home near Coal Bank Pass burned down; afterward, firefighters said they quickly ran out of water even though the tank
for development met the code's minimum requirement.
How the code will shake out economically is still being assessed.
Pagosa Springs, which has adopted the 2003 fire code, recently ran into a quandary of this nature when a business
seeking to expand was asked by the fire district to put in an $8,000 fire hydrant. Town officials, meanwhile, worried
what making such demands on new or expanding businesses would do to economic development.
It makes no sense to apply a standard that makes the financial reasoning for the addition ineffective," Town Planner
David Mitchem was quoted saying at a meeting on the request.
In La Plata County, Knowlton said that another change people could notice under the new code is the requirement to
get a permit for open burning. This does not include agricultural or recreational fires.
The next meeting of the fire code commission is scheduled for Dec. 15.
A final draft of the code is expected to go before commissioners for approval around February.
I'm hopeful that we're in the homestretch," Graeber said.