After 32 years on the job, Hellsgate Fire Chief Gary Hatch got an emotional send-off last week.
Only the department’s third chief, Hatch spent his entire fire career with Hellsgate. First he helped found it, then he merged it with other districts and oversaw its growth.
Now Hatch leaves in the midst of budget woes that challenge the department’s ability to serve Star Valley, Tonto Village and other rural areas under the Rim.
Facing a massive deficit next year, Hatch recently offered to retire early. If he had not, the district’s fire board would have laid off at least two firefighters, in addition to not replacing a departing firefighter engineer who drives the truck Tonto Village.
Losing any more staff was something Hatch would not allow.
“There was no way,” he said. “I pray that the level of service will continue, it is only hampered by our budget at this time.”
The loss of a federal staffing grant and a drop in property tax revenue created a $366,000 sinkhole in the department’s budget, despite creative budget cuts in the past several years.
Hatch’s early retirement will save about $100,000. The board hopes to make up the rest of the deficit through federal payments for Hellsgate firefighters who fight wildfires and by using reserves.
Hatch said he hopes the district will find the money it needs to keep “this tremendous level of service that these people provide,” gesturing to a line of firefighters standing in formation outside the main Star Valley station.
As part of his May 20 send-off, the entire Hellsgate staff attended a special ceremony.
Battalion Chief Dave Bathke, who will take over as chief, led the ceremony.
Hatch said he couldn’t have picked a better person to oversee his staff and community or a better friend.
“I am pleased that I am turning (the reins) over to someone that I trust,” Hatch said.
Hatch started in the fire service 32 years ago, although he never planned on a firefighting career. Then he discovered he loved serving.
He was part of the group that formed Diamond Star Fire, which eventually became Hellsgate.
The district formed in 1982 and responded to its first house fire Nov. 24 that year.
Ironically, that first house on fire belonged to Hatch.
Hatch’s daughter Angie Lecher, said she remembers the day very well.
Five at the time, Lecher was practicing her ABCs on a velvet rocking chair in the living room when she heard the smoke alarm go off.
Her sister, then 4, had found a lighter. She took it into a closet with her brother and lit a dress on fire. The flames quickly spread.
As Hatch was responding, he recognized his address.
Several bystanders got concerned when they saw Hatch enter the home and not come out. Hatch explained they didn’t know he was a firefighter and that he had left his turnout gear inside and needed to get it on to help fight the blaze.
Someone who helped on that fire was Marty deMasi, Payson’s longtime fire chief who retired last year.
deMasi and Hatch worked together for years and deMasi was even Hatch’s first fire instructor. deMasi said he could tell early on that Hatch had leadership ability.
Under his leadership, the district merged with Tonto Village fire in 2008 and is now in the process of building a new station there. Hatch also served as president of the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association.
“Chief we are going to miss you,” said Gary Norem, fire board president. “Thank you for your dedicated service.”
Hatch said it was a privilege to serve the citizens and to see two of his children enter the fire service.
Lecher has been with Hellsgate for 16 years and is the business manager. Hatch’s son is a firefighter in New Orleans.
Due to accumulated time off, Hatch’s official retirement date is Aug. 10. Until then, Bathke will serve as the interim fire chief.
“Dave, I turn this staff over to you. Take care of them my friend,” Hatch said.
Bathke presented Hatch with an Arizona flag, which has flown over all the fire stations, and a fire helmet.
Holding them, Hatch broke down.
“The only ... regret that I have on this beautiful day is that my friend Bobby Mollere is not here,” he said through tears.
Lt. Mollere died during a pack test earlier this year, the only firefighter Chief Hatch ever lost.
“The loss of Bobby will ride with me in my heart forever. As a chief, the thing you pray for is to never lose a firefighter and it has taken a lot out of me, I am not going to lie,” he said, turning to the line of firefighters.
“My fellow brothers and sisters, please be safe, take care of yourself so you can take care of others.”
With that, Hatch took one last spin on a fire truck around the community with his wife at his side.