When Wild Bill Gibson saw flames leaping from a neighbor’s home on April 16, he grabbed his camera, hoping to catch firefighters’ arrival.
Surely, they’re already on the way, he thought.
After 10 minutes, he wondered when they’d show. After 30 minutes and no sound of sirens, he wondered whether they’d show at all.
As neighbors grabbed garden hoses and hurriedly sprayed the vegetation, Gibson realized they were on their own.
Nearly 40 minutes after Gibson starting taking pictures, a crew finally arrived — a Forest Service Hotshot team, which immediately focused on keeping the fire from spreading to the forest and not the home.
“I watched this home totally burn from one end to the other — waiting and waiting to hear the sirens of the coming fire equipment that didn’t come — that to me is unacceptable,” he said.
Gibson does not blame the surrounding fire departments — he blames the community.
Deer Creek sits without any fire protection, miles from the nearest fire station. As it turns out, none of the fire departments in the region have any obligation to send help. Next time, say some, they may not.
Deer Creek remains one of a handful of communities the county let develop without fire coverage and one of the largest that has not established its own department.
The fire appears to have burned away residents’ false sense of protection and exposed a dangerous situation homeowners have largely ignored for years.
Gibson believes it is up to Deer Creek residents, not the Tonto Basin, Payson or Gisela fire departments, to address the problem.
Just days after the blaze, citizens are investigating what it will take to form their own fire district.
Mark Dho, president of the Deer Creek homeowners association, said it is a shame it took a tragedy for work to begin.
Dho and Jim Norman, former HOA president, said they tried for years to establish some fire protection, but always ran up against community opposition.
Neighbors did not want to pay for coverage, not enough volunteers stepped forward to operate a station, both men said.
Gibson, who rents a home in the area, said it baffles him that residents can sleep soundly knowing their homes are unprotected.
“I lived in Beaver Valley and we had a small fire force and having something like that here just makes sense,” he said.
Before the fire, he assumed the area was covered.
The perception that firefighters will come is dangerous and unfair, said Tonto Basin Fire Chief Steve Holt.
“I have spoken with individuals dozens of times and tried to correct their misinterpretation,” he said.
Although Tonto Basin and Payson eventually sent crews and trucks to the Deer Creek house fire, it was only because the Forest Service asked for help. Neither department was required to respond, especially if they did not have sufficient coverage of their districts.
Holt said luckily, this time, nothing happened in his or Payson’s district while crews were in Deer Creek.
“We are putting our own district at risk,” he said. “I have been advised by the county attorney not to do what we did.”
Both departments spent thousands to fight the fire and will likely not get reimbursed.
“It is a burden on our tax dollars,” Holt said.
After the fire, several Deer Creek residents complained it took crews too long to respond. Hearing this criticism, especially when Tonto Basin had no obligation to come at all, is disappointing, Holt said. “We are all firefighters and public servants at heart and we don’t want to hear that anyone’s home is burning,” he said.
Keeping the rest of the neighborhood from going up in flames is the real reason crews came.
In Gisela, the next nearest fire department to Deer Creek, Chief Ronalee Quarles said she didn’t send any crews to help at the fire.
Gisela, in fact, never responds to Deer Creek or Rye because the district is already extremely under staffed. Sending the one or two volunteer firefighters available would leave the area exposed. Second, Gisela does not have the budget to support out-of-district calls, she said. Working with a yearly budget of $70,000 and aging equipment, the Gisela department barely has enough to answer the 80 calls it gets a year.
Quarles said she is open to the idea of forming a district with Deer Creek, Gisela and Rye, but first the communities must address many questions.
“They need to do something,” she said.
While no one questions that Deer Creek needs fire protection, they’ve just started debating the form that protection should take.
Even fire chiefs have yet to agree.
At a Fire Chiefs Association meeting in Christopher-Kohl’s Monday, Holt said he plans to address Deer Creek.
Preliminary ideas include letting Deer Creek form its own volunteer fire district with grant funds and donations. The community could also try to convince Payson, Tonto Basin or Gisela to annex it.
Holt said he hopes a solution is reached before his department is called again to help.
“I have known for many, many years now that this was going to happen — it is inevitable,” Holt said. “And it is going to happen again.”
Coming Tuesday: Read more about the fire chiefs meeting and some of the proposed solutions to Deer Creek’s fire dilemma.