During the last year, Hellsgate Fire Department experienced a host of changes including the combination of two fire departments, a new name and a chief to oversee it all. Several firefighters quit along the way because of the changes, but what remained was a dedicated group of trained firefighters protecting more than 4,000 people in the Rim Country.
Hellsgate Fire, formerly Diamond Star Fire District, was formed in 1980 to protect around 250 residents. After two years of training, the department became operational, said Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch.
“We started with one fire truck in a two-bay station, now we have 12 trucks,” he said.
Hatch, who was one of the founding members of the district, was also the unlikely victim of the department’s first house fire.
In November 1982, the department got its first call for a fire, when they arrived on scene Hatch was surprised to find it was his home. Two of his children, playing with a lighter in a closet, had accidentally set the home ablaze. Diamond Star was able put the fire out, save the home and no one was injured — the department’s first success.
More than 20 years later and after renovations and repairs, Hatch and his family still own that home and live in it.
The strange coincidences in Hatch’s life don’t end there. Growing up on a farm, Hatch started running farm equipment when he was 8 years old. At 13, he started driving the track hoe full time — his first experience running heavy equipment, but not his last.
By his early 20s, Hatch was a master mechanic at the Wilberg Mine in Utah. But needing a change of pace, Hatch moved to Arizona. Six months after leaving Utah, a devastating fire occurred at the Wilberg Mine, killing 27 miners, including Hatch’s replacement. The fire is considered the most deadly coal mine fire in Utah history, and one of the worst mining disasters in the United States.
Hatch says he’s certain he would have died alongside his crew if he had stayed.
“My biggest fear as a kid was drowning or dying in a fire,” he said. “I always had a premonition I would die in a fire.”
Hatch considers the source of his premonition the Wilberg fire.
Shortly after arriving in Arizona, more than 27 years ago, Hatch unwillingly attended a meeting about starting the Diamond Star fire department.
“I told them I did not want to (attend), but they said no one could leave the room until the meeting was over,” he said. “By the end of the meeting I was hooked by the thought of helping the community and working as a team.”
As they say, the rest is history. By 1986, Hatch was captain, five years later, volunteer fire chief, and by 1992, he went full time at the department.
By 2000, 12 fire chiefs, including Hatch, started the Northern Gila County Fire Chiefs Association to discuss the issues facing the then-12 fire departments in northern Gila County and put a strategic plan together.
“We sat down and talked,” Hatch said. “We started the merger discussions five years ago.”
In April 2007, Tonto Village’s fire chief resigned, leaving a hole in the organization.
“The board was thinking of ways to get a new chief and they asked if I would be the chief of both,” he said. The Diamond Star board agreed to the one-year trial period and in April, entered into an Intergovernmental Agreement.
“There was fear that we (Diamond Star) would take all the money (from Tonto Village) and use it here, but the opposite is true,” Hatch said.
Diamond Star gave Tonto Village two type 1 engines and trained all of the firefighters, who had minimal training. Hatch said some Tonto Village firefighters quit because they did not like the changes or the training required, but the department ultimately ended up with six dedicated and trained firefighters.
“We ran them through a mini academy to get them up to speed, and we got them state certified, and five got EMT certified,” he said.
By December 2007, Tonto Village wanted to make the merger permanent, and by mid-January 2008, the merger was finalized.
The name Hellsgate was chosen from the wilderness area located southeast of Star Valley.
“We wanted a new identity and we found a landmark that covered the area,” he said.
The merger of Diamond Star and Tonto Village expanded the department coverage area 596 percent from 5.6 square miles to 39 square miles. A full-time firefighter now lives in Tonto Village with 10 in Star Valley and 32 volunteers.
Hatch said he could see future mergers with other departments in the Rim area.
“One day we could become a big department that surrounds Payson,” he said. “But probably not in my career.”
Today the department’s focus is training. Three times a month, all 43 personnel members attend training. Hatch said after the Dude Fire almost wiped out his crew, he knew they needed to be better trained for all situations.
In another near-death experience for Hatch, during the Dude Fire his crew was trapped on a trail in the fire and were forced to bury their heads in the ground to get oxygen.
“I thought we were going to die,” he said.
Today the department still responds to wildfires across the country, but is properly trained to handle the long hours and dangerous situations.
Last year, Hellsgate firefighters helped with four California wildfires and spent 30 days in New Mexico.
The U.S. Forest Service and state government pay the department for its service. Last year, they brought in $300,000 from wildfires, which was used to cover truck payments and wages.
Taxes only cover 47 percent of the department’s costs, the rest is earned through grants, IGAs and fighting wildfires.