Flames Of Controversy

Young fire chief fired as rash of fires rattles residents

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Young has suffered through a rash of fires — both structural and in the volunteer fire district boardroom.

Since Christmas, volunteer firefighters have responded to five blazes, three involving structures. The area normally sees just one structure fire a year, said Becky Cottom, the department’s administrator.

Simultaneously, the Pleasant Valley Fire Board axed Fire Chief Becky Orahood, igniting a firestorm among firefighters who have threatened to quit.

The controversy underscores the difficulty of operating a mostly volunteer fire department, given the small-town politics and lack of resources. Such problems beset many unincorporated communities in Rim Country — although the problems in Young look more like a crown fire than a brush fire.

The board on Dec. 16 fired Orahood effective Jan. 15 then reaffirmed its decision this week.

At the three-hour Dec. 16 board meeting, one firefighter predicted 90 percent of the staff will follow the chief out the door.

“It is not a threat, but the facts,” the man said, who the Roundup could not identify from a recording of the meeting. “We think Becky is a good chief. She may rub you guys the wrong way, sorry about that, but we think she is looking out for us.”

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Photo courtesy BJ Halverson, PVFD firefighter

A board member responded by saying they were looking out for the best interests of firefighters and the community.

Despite the furor, the community’s volunteer firefighters have continued to show up to battle the almost unprecedented rash of fires.

On Dec. 25, a couple’s home burned down while they were away in Payson celebrating the holiday. That fire is still under investigation.

Then, firefighters snuffed out a two-acre grass fire that started in a trash barrel burn.

Crews then responded to another trash barrel fire, but the homeowners got it under control before firefighters arrived.

On Cohea Lane, a fire started after someone improperly disposed of hot fireplace ashes. The blaze spread to two acres, destroyed a large doublewide shed and threatened three homes. Flames nearly reached the Jacuzzi on one home’s back porch.

Then on Tuesday, a chimney fire spread into a home’s attic. Firefighters managed to save the home.

All of that has proved a strain for a department with 18 volunteer firefighters, two with EMS certification.

Orahood moved up from a position as assistant chief in July after then-chief Mitch Skolnekovich left after a brief tenure.

Before that, Kathy Hunt ran the department for roughly eight years.

In recent months, the board has gone through a string of board members and almost faced a recall election of board member David Braswell, before he resigned.

At the Dec. 16 meeting, some board members said Orahood had to go because of communications issues.

But Orahood retorted, “If you are going to say communications were the problem then you better put a mirror up and talk to yourself also.”

Many small, unincorporated communities in Rim Country have also struggled to maintain mostly volunteer fire departments without any sales tax and only a narrow property tax base to raise money.

Hellsgate Fire Department relies heavily on volunteers and serves Star Valley, Christopher Creek and other small communities. It faces serious budget challenges as a result of the decline in property values since the recession.

Other communities like Beaver Valley, Houston Mesa and Whispering Pines maintain their own small, mostly volunteer fire departments.

Still other communities like Deer Creek don’t actually have fire protection and must rely on the unpaid assistance of neighboring fire departments when a fire breaks out.

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