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Durango firefighters, service workers struggle to find affordable housing

Some seasonal employees live out of their vehicle during summer wildfire season
Durango Fire Protection District firefighters take a lunch break July 23 at Station No. 2 in Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
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As median home prices rise in places like Durango, firefighters and other service workers are finding it increasingly difficult to find housing in the communities they serve, making it tough for fire departments to recruit and retain employees.

In Durango, firefighter recruitment has become increasingly difficult; in addition to making sure potential recruits meet physical and mental health requirements, fire departments must make sure candidates can afford to live nearby.

“One of the most major factors that we've got when we're trying to do recruiting for people is checking in with them and encouraging them to look at the housing market,” said Hal Doughty, chief of Durango Fire Protection District. “... Much more than can we give them a job is to question whether you can afford to live in this place. And it's Durango, you know, that's a significant ask.”

Out of the 118 full-time employees who work for Durango fire, 114 do not live in town, Doughty said. That leaves only four employees who live in Durango.

Of the employees who are able to live in Durango, most are able to do that because they’ve inherited property and homes from family members or have a spouse with a higher-paying job, not because they recently purchased a house. It’s common for seasonal workers to live out of their cars during the wildfire season, Doughty said, and oftentimes four workers will cram into a two-bedroom apartment.

Some even commute from out of state, where housing is cheaper, such as New Mexico.

“We actually have had wildland firefighters that come in to work for us for the summer that live out of their vehicle parked at a station, and kind of choose to be homeless during that time to work with us,” Doughty said.

In terms of recruitment, DFPD has had to alter its strategies to find more people to work. Instead of outsourcing nationwide for workers, the department has started to find job candidates who already live in or near Durango and offer them positions and firefighter training, prioritizing those with good work ethic and strong morals to do the job.

Capt. Jordan Ashby with Durango Fire Protection District in the captain’s office of Station No. 2, which also serves as a living quarters. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

While the method has seen some success, it is not a sustainable model. As housing prices continue to rise, fewer blue-collar workers are moving to Durango, impacting multiple service industries.

“There are no blue-collar people who are moving here for any industry, hardly. So you know, this is a temporary fix,” said Scott Neilsen, wildland coordinator at DFPD. “There's going to be less and less of a chance for us to find those people that are willing to work those careers. … Our pool of applicants is dwindling daily.”

Although a lack of service workers might not seem severe, Nielsen said the impacts are highly detrimental to the community, and people are already suffering from the effects. It’s a problem that goes beyond firefighting; there are also shortages of EMTs, snowplow drivers and emergency service workers as a whole.

According to Neilsen, clearing snow from Durango streets has been more difficult this year because of a lack of workers. The problem, he said, will compound as Durango’s population grows older.

The shortage of workers keeps growing, as do the number of calls, yet the ability to respond to incidents becomes increasingly difficult.

“Unfortunately, what's going to end up happening is that communities aren't going to be able to field the team of emergency service professionals to provide services,” Doughty said. “I don't know what happens when we get to that point. I don't know what that looks like.”

Doughty and Neilsen want to see legislative action such as more workforce housing, adequate funding of emergency services and initiatives to support the revenues of emergency services.

Doughty said a statewide mandate for taxpayers to provide a certain amount of money for emergency services would be greatly beneficial, perhaps coming from property taxation or sales tax. Looking at critical infrastructure, Doughty said more opportunities exist for workforce affordable housing.

If there were more affordable housing, Doughty said DFPD could provide housing stipends to workers to assist with the cost of rent, helping to bring in more employees.

“The proof is out there that these communities are going to wind up, unfortunately, in a situation where they have significantly diminished (services) or are absent of services,” Doughty said.

Sarah Mattalian is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at smattalian@durangoherald.com.

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