The Deer Creek community has lacked fire protection far too long, a group of fire chiefs agreed Monday.
Recently, many residents were outraged that help did not arrive on April 16 as a house burned to the ground in the small community south of Payson.
However, officials attending Monday’s Gila County Fire Chiefs Association meeting turned the tables, saying they are outraged residents have blamed Tonto Basin and Payson Fire for not showing up — when those agencies have no legal obligation to respond at all.
“People need to be aware that if they move into an area like this, they have no fire coverage,” said Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch.
What fire protection would look like and who would provide coverage remains unclear, but residents should take action before tragedy strikes, the group agreed.
Tonto Basin Fire Chief Steven Holt said he has worried about Deer Creek for years.
Miles outside his area, but still one of the closest fire departments, Holt knew he would one day get the call to respond to a fire.
After trying unsuccessfully to contact homeowners for years, he had given up on helping the community recruit a few volunteers and get a truck.
Then just before 10 a.m. April 16, Holt got the call he had been dreading. A home at 124 E. Cat Claw Road was fully involved, neighbors had reported.
Normally, firefighters only have a few minutes to respond to have any chance of saving a home. But just getting to Deer Creek would take at least 20 minutes.
At first, dispatch sent the U.S. Forest Service to protect the forest. Then Gila County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Tim Scott started begging for help over the radio after he arrived on scene and realized no one was coming to save the home.
“It was a real eye-opener for me,” Scott said. “And I knew they didn’t have fire protection.”
At first, Holt refused to send anyone. After the fact, he isn’t so sure he made the right call.
“The answer when (Scott) asked, ‘Who else is coming?’ I said, ‘Nobody is coming. There is no fire district involved in Deer Creek.’ We have had these discussions before,” Holt said.
Short one firefighter that day, two Tonto Basin firefighters were already on a medical call when the fire erupted.
“I only had two people working in all of Tonto Basin when that dispatch came through. So when my lieutenant called me and said, ‘Do you want us to go?’ I said, ‘No, there is no way, can’t do it.’”
Luckily, several off-duty firefighters were available to cover the station, so Holt could send an engine. He eventually decided to take the risk to prevent nearby homes from burning down as well.
“When I got there the structure was already on the ground,” he said. “The homeowner was just coming home and the homeowner’s father was hot at everybody.”
Residents had assumed someone would come and many expressed anger that it took Tonto Basin more than 20 minutes to arrive — including the homeowner’s father.
“There were people standing around and some of them were waving at you, thanking you and waving you in and some were flipping you off and throwing stuff at you. It was a mess,” Holt said about the conditions when crews arrived.
The Hellsgate fire chief expressed similar concerns. Hatch said he only sends a crew if he has enough coverage for Star Valley and bills the homeowner afterward.
“Why should someone who doesn’t pay taxes get the same benefits as someone who does?” he asked.
Holt has yet to bill the Deer Creek homeowner and is waiting for his next board meeting to get direction.
Holt said he used up gas, expended a truck of firefighting foam, wore out his team and burnt a length of hose, but at least no one got hurt.
“The homeowner was very thankful to us when we got an opportunity to explain what was going on.
“The homeowner’s father was pissed off at everybody and Tim (Scott) had to escort him off the scene because he was being ridiculous.”
Holt said he is tired of being beat up for helping a community he has no legal obligation to assist.
A table full of fire chiefs agreed that something has to change.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said she would meet with Holt and Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi to work out possible solutions.
In the end, it is up to the homeowners to make something happen.
“I am willing to help them, but I don’t feel right coming in and imposing my will onto them,” deMasi said. “Someone from that community has got to step up and be a leader.”
Holt suggested the community hook up with Gisela Fire and create a larger district that includes Rye, which also sits unprotected.
“This has finally been brought to a head and something needs to happen,” Holt said. “This is an opportunity to fix this.”
Deer Creek Homeowners Association President Mark Dho said homeowners are ready to create their own fire district or seek annexation. Several residents have already volunteered as firefighters.
Tonto Basin Fire Department, however, would not annex Deer Creek today as it stands, Holt said. “I don’t have the ability cover them, he said. “They would need to build a station and get volunteers.”
If Deer Creek finally gets fire protection, it may motivate other communities, Martin said.
Dripping Springs, Verde Glen, Haigler Creek and Flowing Springs all lack protection.
Ron Sattelmaier, Whispering Pines Fire Department chief, said “People need to understand that the fire department is just like insurance, you have to pay for it in advance and hope you never have to use it.”
But Hatch added: “If you do have to use it, the time to try and get it is not when you want to use it.”