After a year’s work, the fire chiefs with Hellsgate and Payson have come to a tentative agreement for a proposed fire authority that unifies the two departments along with the Houston Mesa Fire District.
The Payson Town Council, as well as the Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire district boards, must now decide whether to approve the joint powers agreement (JPA). If they do, the Rim Country Fire and Medical Authority could be operational by July 1 — a central agency providing fire service to a majority of the communities below the Rim.
Board members will meet Jan. 8 at Payson Town Hall to discuss the JPA during a work-study session.
The Roundup will explore the agreement and its effects in a three-part series in the coming weeks.
So far, the local fire union has nearly 100 percent buy-in from firefighters and an independent financial firm has signed off on the plan’s feasibility.
The agreement would deepen the longstanding cooperation between Rim Country fire districts.
None of the departments have the independent resources to manage even a house fire alone, let alone a major problem like a wildfire, commercial fire, multi-structure fire, major explosion or other crisis. Already, any major incident draws units from the whole region.
While currently done under automatic aid agreements, the JPA takes it a step further and puts the three departments under one roof.
Better service for residents and more support for local firefighters.
“I really believe this is something good for the public. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t do it at all,” said Hellsgate Capt. Rick Heron who is also the president of the Northern Gila County Professional Firefighters 4135 Union. “But this is also good for the firefighters. This organization will do nothing but deal with fire.”
While the JPA will create a new separate legal entity, overseeing that agency will be members of the Payson Town Council along with Hellsgate and Houston Mesa fire boards to thwart the possibility that one agency has too much control over the others.
And given their long history of working together, Payson Fire Chief David Staub and Hellsgate Chief John Wisner don’t see that happening.
“We are better together,” Staub said.
Less than a year ago, a large barn caught fire in Star Valley. Given the size and potential for spread, nearly all local fire departments responded to help.
Based on national standards, at least 12-15 firefighters should respond to such an incident. Payson had nine firefighters working and Hellsgate, three.
Such incidents illustrate the interdependence among the agencies.
Having everyone working under the same department will make things that much easier and more efficient, the chiefs say.
The firefighters will not only train together, they will work under the same set of rules, gain cross training on every piece of equipment and have the same goal: keeping Rim Country residents safe.
The agreement gives the authority the potential to offer new services. That could include a fuels crew, which could clean up overgrown yards and common spaces. The Prescott and Flagstaff fire departments currently operate such crews, which play a critical role in creating Firewise communities.
During a wildfire, all of the firefighters would work under one command structure — improving coordination. Instead of working back and forth among the various agencies, Staub will oversee the JPA as chief with Wisner acting as assistant chief.
“We can work more strategically instead of tactically,” Staub said.
Currently, neither department has an assistant chief.
Under the JPA, if Staub were gone during a major event Wisner could easily step in and vice versa.
Staub and Wisner have led efforts to create the JPA and worked closely with the union and firefighters.
Heron said firefighters voted “overwhelming” support with a 92 percent yes vote to create the authority.
In Hellsgate, 100 percent of firefighters are part of the union and in Payson, 95 percent. Pine-Strawberry Fire is also part of the union, but those firefighters abstained from the vote because the district has expressed no interest in joining the authority.
Heron, who has worked for Hellsgate for the better part of 24 years, said the biggest hurdle is the loss of identity. Payson Fire Department and Hellsgate will no longer exist. Instead, everyone will be known as the Rim Country Fire and Medical Authority, which does not have the same ring.
“We take pride in our organizations and that is the biggest problem,” he said.
But that should lessen with time as the firefighters ban together under the authority identity.
“I am excited for the opportunity to come together,” said Capt. Bobbi Doss with Hellsgate Fire. “As we do so, we lessen the duplication of our efforts so we can better serve our communities as a whole.”
But not everyone is sold. Payson Town Manager LaRon Garrett said he is concerned about the funding model.
Read more about how the authority will be funded in the next part of the series followed by a detailed look at the agreement.
Mark Essary, an officer with the Tonto Apache Tribal Police, leaned over the jewelry counter in Walmart as his young charge pressed his face against the glass.
“My mom likes butterflies,” said the young man. “Do you see any butterflies?”
The two had been paired together for the annual national Shop with a Cop extravaganza held on Dec. 15 this year. The annual shopping trip for first responders and at-risk youth showcases the connection officers have with the community.
Some stories say Shop with a Cop’s started 30 years ago in Blount County, Tenn. when officers Tony Crisp and Ron Dunn met Kevin Morgan at a youth camp. When they heard Kevin’s mother had died shortly before the holidays, they knew they had to do something to make Morgan’s holiday special.
So they decided to take the young man shopping. But it wasn’t the gifts that stuck in Morgan’s mind. It was the ride in the police cruiser. Morgan said hitting the siren as they pulled into his driveway remains his most cherished memory from that first Shop with a Cop.
Deputy Travis Todd also had wonderful memories of kids’ eyes lighting up as they rode in the first responder vehicle with the siren blazing, so he took on the organizational job last year.
Rim Country first responders used to do Shop with a Cop every year. Then, it died out for a long time.
Todd made the mistake of asking about resurrecting the program.
“I told Sheriff Shepherd we did it at the last department I worked at and it was a great event,” said Todd. “Sheriff Shepherd said they hadn’t done it for many years. He suggested I start it back up.”
In fact, Todd had just a couple of months to prepare last year.
That short time frame limited participation to a few kids from Payson as a big part of the success of the event comes from Walmart’s support and fundraising done by Gila County first responder agencies.
The store provides grant money for gifts. The first responders raise money for gifts, food and other support.
Shop with a Cop provides each child with around $150 to spend however they wish.
Todd said this year some of the money raised from No Shave November went toward the Shop with a Cop.
“We raised just over $6,000,” he said.
Last year, Walmart had already budgeted its grant money. Add to that, the Payson Walmart had just welcomed its new manager, Nathan Harding.
Still, Harding pulled together a fabulous event with cupcakes, free wrapping and lots of extra money as the kids went a bit overboard on the budget.
This time, with a year to prepare, Todd got the grant request in early. As a result, the local Walmart could expand its support — and Todd also applied to the Globe Walmart. Here in Rim Country 18 at-risk youth participated, plus 15 from Globe.
“(The Payson store) gave a grant for $2,500 this year,” said Harding. “Last year it was $1,500.” The Globe Walmart gave its own grant.
On Saturday, the children started Shop with a Cop by meeting up with first responders from the local police and fire departments, Tonto Apache Tribal Police, Sheriff’s Posse, Forest Service, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office and Department of Public Safety, Lifeline Ambulance and Native Air to have breakfast at the Mazatzal Casino’s Cedar Ridge Restaurant.
“The casino is phenomenal,” said Todd. “They stepped up to the plate and made sure the kids had plenty to eat.”
Dispatchers, officers’ spouses and staff and their families from Payson Orthodontics also helped to make sure the event went smoothly.
“Everybody is here,” said Ben McDowell, the orthodontist, “We’re helping to keep track of the purchase amounts.”
McDowell said not only did Payson Orthodontics help with staff, they partnered with Payson Premier Dental to provide monetary support.
“We had a movie fundraiser and close to 100 people showed up,” he said. “We gave $1,300 to the event.”
Native Air provided a helicopter to stage Santa’s dramatic entrance.
Clearly, it took a village to pull off this special event for the kids.
Turns out, the kids were no less generous.
Most of them spent their money buying gifts for family and fiends, said Essary.
“When I asked him about his list, he said he’s looking for presents for his mother and siblings,” said Essary. “He said Santa would take care of him.”
The Arizona Corporation Commission this week agreed to require the state’s utilities to buy or produce 90 megawatts of energy annually from biomass — saving the forest restoration industry from collapse.
The Corporation Commission on a 4-1 vote ordered the reluctant staff to come up with a proposed set of rules to create a market for the 1.5 million tons of branches, brush and debris created by thinning 50,000 acres of overgrown forest annually.
“We were in a desperate situation,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, a leading member of the stakeholders group for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). “This is critical.”
The ACC staff had drafted a report questioning the value of extending even the current mandates to buy 28 megawatts of power, much less expanding the requirement to 90 megawatts.
But Commissioner Andy Tobin led the push for the full 90 megawatt requirement, which would create the market needed to jump-start the moribund 4FRI effort. It could also boost the average homeowner’s electric bill by $1 to $4 a month, based on an earlier, still debated study by Arizona Public Service (APS).
“This is huge, absolutely huge,” said Martin of the provisional commission support for expanding the market for biomass. “It turns the biomass into a product instead of a problem. If we can’t figure out how to let the industry deal with these attendant issues, we’re not ever going to get this forest cleaned out — period.”
Novo Power President Brad Worsley said only a Corporation Commission mandate and long-term contracts from the Forest Service will make it possible to create the biomass power generation plants needed to sustain forest restoration. Novo Power operates a 28 megawatt biomass power plant in Snowflake, the only one in Arizona. APS currently has a four-year contract to buy power from the plant, which has sustained the forest restoration efforts in the White Mountains.
“I’m grateful for what happened Monday,” said Worsley. “But I’m not breathing a lot easier yet. It’s not done until it’s done — and it’s not done yet.”
The commission must still adopt a final rule, with many key details still unresolved.
Forest restoration advocates showed up in force this week at a commission hearing, prompting the commissioners to essentially overrule a staff report. The staff had concluded the commission should focus on keeping electric rates as low as possible instead of shifting the cost of forest restoration onto electricity users.
However, forest advocates pointed out that creating a market for millions of tons of biomass would benefit the entire state. Large-scale thinning would likely increase runoff from millions of acres of watershed into the Valley, in a state with a worsening water shortage. Saving the forest restoration efforts would also potentially save billions in wildfire suppression costs and billions in property damage. It will also save lives by reducing deaths from air pollution from wildfires, save the lives of firefighters and homeowners from megafires. All the while, the biomass industry will provide jobs in hard-pressed rural industries.
“Commissioner Tobin pointed out that rarely is a political movement pure in its intention and perfect in its answers — but there are very few things we work on at a state or national level more important,” said Worsley.
Martin said APS and other power companies also supported the plan, along with a host of environmental groups, officials from rural counties, logging companies and advocates for economic development.
“We now have an opportunity to see if the market can solve this problem — we didn’t have that before,” said Martin.
The Forest Service has struggled for a decade to find a contractor who could thin the millions of acres of overgrown forests, which have contributed to a massive increase in wildfires. The Paradise fire in California that killed 85 people, consumed 15,000 homes and inflicted $9 billion in damages demonstrating the potential for disaster in a drought-plagued, overgrown forest.
The Forest Service has pioneered how to complete massive environmental analysis, getting hundreds of thousand of acres approved for clearing in a single study. However, one contractor after another has failed to come anywhere near the 50,000-acres-per-year pace envisioned a decade ago. Even at that pace, it would take perhaps 40 years to work through the 2 million acres in need of thinning. Tree densities have increased from maybe 50 per acre to perhaps 800 per acres over much of that area, due to fire suppression, grazing and clear-cut logging.
Given the new streamlined Forest Service system, economics now represents the biggest challenge to 4FRI, the biggest forest restoration effort in the nation’s history. The region now has only a handful of mills that could handle trees in the 12- to 16-inch diameter range. But the much greater challenge lies in getting rid of the thickets of 6- to 8-inch trees, branches from the larger trees and brush.
Every acre thinned produces roughly 50 tons of material — equally divided between logs for the mills and biomass. Contractors’ promises to turn the biomass into jet fuel, compost, soil char or other exotic products have all fallen short — leaving only biomass burning as a market.
Martin said the power companies, loggers, environmentalists, local officials and fire officials made common cause before the commission this week.
“They had a chance to be statesmen, to display the leadership needed to get this over the finish line — to really get a grip on these vulnerable forests.”
She noted that the commission will meet again to adopt a final rule in the next one to three months.
Worsley said only the adoption of such a rule combined with a Forest Service contract guaranteeing a supply of biomass for the next 15 to 20 years will make this possible for companies like his to get the financing needed to build additional biomass power plants.
His company has estimated it would build a 50 megawatt power plant in about 20 months for roughly $100 million.
The APS study estimated a 30 megawatt biomass power plant could cost as much as $500 million.
Still, forest advocates this week celebrated a crucial victory.
Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting said, “It would appear the commission now understands how much this matters to Arizona and its citizens. A month ago, this was on its deathbed — but through numerous prayers and efforts from concerned citizens, leaders and elected officials we are now moving in the right direction.”