By Marianne Goodland
State Capitol Correspondent
Farmers and ranchers would be required to notify their local fire departments when they do controlled burns, under a bill that won approval from the House Energy and Environment Committee last week.
House Bill 1132 would apply to anyone attempting a controlled burn on private property, and it’s a response to what happened to Yuma County firefighter Capt. Darcy Stallings last October 21.
Stallings, 34, was responding to a fire call that turned out to be a controlled burn when he died in a traffic accident in his personal pickup, when he ran into the back of a beet truck.
Gov. Jared Polis ordered flags lowered to half-mast on October 26 in Stallings’ honor.
The bill is named “Darcy’s Last Call Act” in Stallings’ honor.
Under the bill, the person conducting the controlled burn must notify the fire department at least 48 hours prior to the burn, along with the date, time and location, as well as contact information for the person responsible for the controlled burn.
The bill applies to both agricultural and ditch burns, under an amendment adopted by the committee. However, language on penalties and fines for failure to notify, as listed in the bill as introduced, were stripped out of the bill.
Another amendment would set up a grant fund for the state Department of Public Safety to provide statewide training on a mobile driver simulation unit. That mobile unit is also named after Stallings as a memorial to him.
Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, who sponsors the bill, told the committee there are communication gaps related to controlled burns.
“There are cases when the local fire authorities were not notified in a timely manner.” It’s led to confusion and fire departments responding to controlled burns when they didn’t need to, he added. Professional fire departments are almost nearly always on standby on these burns, but that isn’t necessarily true for volunteer fire departments, he explained.
The American Property Casualty Insurance Association and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association both registered opposition to the bill but did not testify during the hearing. It’s supported by professional firefighters as well as the state association of fire chiefs.
Ryan Hansen, the chief of the Yuma Fire Department, told the committee that his department is 100 percent volunteer, with 34 volunteers. They responded to 134 calls for service in 2021, he said.
The firefighters all have regular jobs but drop what they’re doing when a call comes in, he said. “In this day and age, there’s no reason why someone doing a controlled burn on their property cannot call it in,” he said. His department responds to controlled burns every year, which he called unnecessary. Calling in a controlled burn is just common courtesy, Hansen told the committee.
But as a small volunteer department, they have little budget for training, and support the mobile unit training, which he called a great asset.
Elmer Smith, an 18-year member of the Yuma fire department, told the committee he’s responded to numerous calls, many that were controlled burns, which could be anything from a pile of trees, trash pit or field. “There’s been an urgency to report” these plumes of smoke, given the drought and concerns that the fires are becoming unpredictable.
Yuma County had one of the bigger wildfires in recent memory, which he said he would not want to see again. That fire was the same week that Stallings died, and another firefighter from the Joes Fire Department, Larry Wyant, died in that blaze, stopping on his way to Stallings’ funeral to respond to the call.
The Stallings family also testified during the March 10 hearing. Stallings’ widow, Mickie, told the committee that he was a dedicated firefighter.
“It may come as an inconvenience to some” but that phone call could save a life, she said, and could allow firefighters to respond to more emergent calls.
Stallings’ mother, Susan, said that if the woman with the controlled burn had just taken a few seconds to call in, “our son would still be here today to enjoy his family, his wife, his 5-year-old son Owen and his 1-year-old daughter Keiley.”
Stallings’ father, Charlee, testified through written testimony. “I don’t know if they were being lazy, inconsiderate, or not thinking, but it cost our family and Darcy his life. Our firefighters, EMS and police are risking their lives for no reason,” he said. “This bill is about saving someone else’s life.”
Stallings’ older sister, Libbie Schuetz, said through tears that she grew up looking after her brother. “That night, I couldn’t protect Darcy. But I hope this bill can help protect future service men and women from risking their lives responding to controlled burns.”
The bill was approved unanimously and heads to the House Appropriations Committee due to its $185,000 annual cost for the mobile unit.
Medical school at UNC
The measure to allow the University of Northern Colorado to set up an osteopathic medical school has won approval from the state House and is now sitting on the governor’s desk, awaiting his signature.
Senate Bill 56 is sponsored by Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Reps. Mary Young, D-Greeley and Perry Will, R-New Castle. It won a unanimous vote from the House on March 8 as well as unanimous support from the Senate in February.
A new medical school would help alleviate an anticipated shortage in physicians, due to an aging workforce and anticipated population growth over the next several decades, according to a feasibility study UNC commissioned last year.
The medical school would provide osteopathic training, a growing field within medicine. Osteopathic physicians focus on whole health, can choose any specialty, prescribe drugs, and perform surgeries. Banner Health, which operates three northern Colorado hospitals, has already agreed to become a site for clinical rotation for third- and fourth-year students, according to a UNC news release.
UNC is still in an exploratory stage on the project, with $6 million from an anonymous donor for that work. A location has not yet been determined, although the site of Bishop Lehr Hall, which has been largely vacant since 2002, is a potential site.
Should UNC move on to implementation, which would require an investment of about $150 million, the first classes could be offered as soon in fall 2025, with 75 students. By 2029, it could enroll up to 150.