After a fire ripped through a home in Deer Creek Village several weeks ago, many residents awoke to their dangerous predicament.
Already 20 minutes from the nearest fire station, residents found that none of the neighboring fire departments wanted to send crews to the small community south of Rye.
The first firefighters on the scene didn’t arrive for more than half an hour and then only because the U.S. Forest Service invoked its mutual aid pact with other departments to keep the fire from spreading to the forest.
Payson, Gisela and Tonto Basin Fire Departments all agree Deer Creek has remained unprotected far too long. Community complacency not only endangers homeowners there, but risks inadequate protection in other communities when firefighters leave to help a neighborhood that has never agreed to pay to protect itself.
In this second part of a series covering Deer Creek’s fire dilemma, the Roundup will examine the community’s options. The alternatives are many, but each carries a cost.
“They need to realize their situation is precarious,” said Marty deMasi, Payson’s fire chief. “I don’t think I would elect to do that (live without fire protection).”
Several Deer Creek residents are already exploring forming a fire district and several fire chiefs have said they would consider annexing the area if the community can drum up enough volunteers and support.
“I told those people they have to make a decision,” said Steve Holt, Tonto Basin fire chief.
If the community can get enough volunteers and county approval, Deer Creek could form its own fire district.
More than a dozen fire districts currently serve county residents. Some, like Payson, cover more than one area. In Payson’s case, that includes East Verde Estates and the Round Valley/Oxbow Estates Fire Districts.
Neither of those districts has fire apparatus nor stations, since Payson is close enough to respond.
Deer Creek, however, would need both fire equipment and volunteers, given the distance to the nearest fire station.
Mark Dho, president of Deer Creek’s homeowners association, said since the April 16 fire, a number of homeowners have come forward, anxious to get a fire district formed.
Dho said he tried to get fire protection in the past, but always ran up against community opposition.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of help,” he said. “It is a shame that a tragedy had to happen.”
Dho said he realized long ago that Gisela, Tonto Basin and Payson could never provide timely service, so the best option was a community department. But that means finding volunteers, something always in short supply.
Today, “it is amazing” how many people are coming forward to help, he said.
“We have a couple new residents that are really trying to help out ... I have more support than I have ever had,” he said. “We are finally getting some new blood in there.”
Dho says this is Deer Creek’s first major fire and likely, what was needed to get the community’s attention.
“People are really concerned now.”
So far, Dho and other residents are researching what the community needs to do to form a fire district, recruit volunteers and perhaps win government grants.
“We are hoping for a small station and have it manned during the day,” he said, “but we are just now researching it.”
To pay for everything on its own, the community would have to help, most likely through a property tax.
Having a fire department, however, would lower insurance rates.
Resident Jim Norman said he pays roughly $500 a year for fire insurance and would be happy to pay for fire protection.
“We know our tax rate will go up to help pay for (a fire department), but most of us are OK with it,” he said.
Holt said he does not believe Deer Creek is big enough to support its own fire station and cautioned the group from going forward.
“There are a whole lot of options and discussion that needs to take place before they jump the gun,” he said.
Holt worries the community will not have enough volunteers or money.
While Tonto Basin has an assessed evaluation of more than $20 million, Holt doubts Deer Creek’s value exceeds $1 million.
“They won’t raise enough taxes on their own to sustain a fire department,” he said. “While they may be able to form their own district and even get a few volunteers, they will never be a fully functional fire department. They will never have enough money for insurance and equipment and the list just goes on and on.”
Holt said Deer Creek should join with Gisela and Rye to form a larger district, Holt said. A larger district would triple the tax base and cover three areas that have limited coverage.
A larger district
A single district covering Gisela, Deer Creek and Rye is not a new idea.
Gisela Fire Chief Ronalee Quarles said Gisela offered to annex in both areas many years ago, but both communities said no.
Today, Quarles said she would not send a truck to either community, no matter the circumstance, because it would leave her district uncovered.
Having very limited resources, Quarles said she barely has enough volunteers and trucks to cover Gisela.
“There is no way (I would send a truck), I won’t leave our district uncovered,” she said. “My obligation is to our community.”
She also had doubts about creating a larger district with Deer Creek.
“It could happen, but there are a lot of things that have to happen first,” she said. “We need a substation down there, funding and volunteers.”
Right now, it takes at least 15 minutes to drive to Deer Creek from Gisela, too long to make any real difference at a house fire.
Both Holt and deMasi insist, however, that a larger district with Gisela is the best option. “My advice is they should form their own district and include Gisela and Rye,” Holt said.
Holt said Tonto Basin could take on Deer Creek, but it would take a lot of planning and community support.
Joining with Tonto Basin
Besides Gisela, Tonto Basin is the next nearest fire department.
Tonto Basin already has a small, unmanned station with one engine at Jake’s Corner. However, Deer Creek would need its own station and volunteers, Holt said.
Recruiting and keeping volunteer firefighters may be a challenge.
With only one house fire in more than 10 years, it is hard to keep people interested in volunteering, especially if they only respond to a few medical calls a year, he said.
“We find today that volunteerism is poor,” he said. We might get six volunteers and have them go through training and then only one stays and the rest lose interest.”
However, if Deer Creek really wanted to join Tonto Basin, residents should expect their property tax to go up. Tonto Basin residents currently pay 3.25 cents per $100 of assessed value.
“My board would decide if it was viable for us to take them on,” he said. “I would strongly not recommend that. I have been encouraging Rye, Gisela and Deer Creek to incorporate and do fire protection, but I don’t think that will happen.”
Joining with Payson Fire
Like Tonto Basin, Payson Fire is hesitant to annex Deer Creek due to the distance involved.
Fire Chief deMasi said he strongly recommends the community look to Gisela first, but is open to Payson one day working with the subdivision.
“I don’t know how the Town of Payson would feel about providing service down there,” he said.
“Years ago it came up briefly. The problem is they are in the middle of nowhere and far removed from everyone.”
Payson would need to see the whole community was behind joining Payson’s fire district.
“The one thing we wouldn’t do is go with individual property owners,” he said. “That wouldn’t work out so well. It is really an all or nothing proposition.”
Without volunteers in Deer Creek, homeowners wouldn’t save anything on fire insurance because Payson could never get there fast enough to save a house.
Volunteer firefighters are the community’s best first line of defense.
deMasi suggested the community first become firewise and then work on joining a fire district.
“If there was some way to help them improve their situation we will do that,” deMasi said.
While Payson, Gisela and Tonto Basin do not seem eager to take on Deer Creek, each fire chief remains open to annexing the small community.
If Deer Creek does nothing, however, it is likely no fire department will show up next time.