MARICOPA — When North Hidden Valley Fire Battalion Chief Randy Hampton got the call of a small brush fire in Hidden Valley on May 28, he immediately hopped into his small engine fire truck to respond. But as he pulled out of the driveway, his heart sank.
In the distance was a cloud of black smoke — clearly much larger than the initial reported fire. Just two minutes later, Hampton rolled up to a home on Brooks and Pima roads that was already fully engulfed in flames. The homeowner stood outside, using a hose to fight the fire.
“I spoke with him for a little bit,” Hampton said at the time. “He had called 911 a half hour before I arrived, and I’m two minutes away.”
So, what happened between the call and Hampton’s dispatch?
Hampton said the issue stems partially from confusion around the rural areas of Maricopa, as many living in Hidden Valley have a Maricopa mailing address.
“The city of Maricopa is dispatched directly through Phoenix fire,” Hampton said. “So of course, when we tell them Maricopa, they think of the city, so your call goes to Phoenix dispatch. We’re kind of in a black hole to them, they have no idea where we’re at.”
On May 28, Hampton said the resident’s 911 call was fielded first through Phoenix dispatch, then transferred to Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, then to Thunderbird Farms Fire Department before Hampton finally got the call.
These are precious minutes for a fire, and Hampton has begun telling community members to call North Hidden Valley Fire directly after calling 911.
“If people call us directly, we’re able to get there within five to 10 minutes in our area, or even sometimes sooner and save things,” Hampton said. “But when it goes through Phoenix dispatch, and then to Pinal County and 30 minutes elapses — by the time we get to the home it’s fully involved.”
That day, the Hidden Valley homeowner managed to rescue his pets before the home went up in flames, and there were no injuries. The home, however, was a total loss.
The rural unincorporated areas around Maricopa and its residents have long relied on a mixture of small volunteer fire departments, Ak-Chin Fire Department and the larger departments of the city of Maricopa.
Residents there enjoy a quiet life on the mostly 3.5-acre plots of land on the outskirts of the city. But as the city grows, it encroaches on this community.
On May 13, Phoenix-based Coe and Van Lou consultants held back-to-back public meetings for two separate developments planned in the Hidden Valley area. The first is Cactus Springs, a residential development with an estimated 1,200 homes at about 3.8 dwellings per acre.
Rezoning for this property on Pima and Ralston roads took place in the early 2000s, and has already been approved.
The second property located on Val Vista and Thunderbird roads would see an additional 500 homes built at a similar density to Cactus Springs. This property has not been approved for rezoning, and would need to be rezoned to a planned area development before it can move forward.
These two housing developments, akin to a modern suburb found inside city limits, are a far cry from what residents in the area are accustomed to. Both public meetings were heavily attended by community members dissenting to the residential developments.
“Any meeting you hold of this nature, you are going to be talking to people who moved out there desiring to live in a rural setting on large acreage, not the kind of compressed living the city of Maricopa is,” said one attendee.
“You are going to find resistance at every point of this until the developers understand — hands off of us.”
The key concerns presented by residents include the influx of traffic on roads ill-equipped to handle the load, water resources in the area, the size of the lots and the general changing of culture in these rural areas.
Roadways, some of which are currently unpaved, would only be improved on the sides that border the properties. These issues could be paid for — at least in part — with impact fees, government-imposed fees on the developer to pay for services like roadways, water, sewage, fire and police coverage.
“I’ve been there 50 years — on Ralston Road,” said Pamela Marlar at the first meeting. “I love the farming across the street from me, I chose it. I was the first one there. I’m going to be invaded by so many people. To think I’m going to lose that? My heart is broken.”
But chief to the concerns of the residents was public safety. An influx of 2,000 homes could bring thousands of new residents to an area with already limited fire and public safety coverage.
Ryan Weed, president of Coe and Van Lou, has made conflicting statements regarding who would be responsible for fire coverage for these areas. Previous to the first public hearing, Rural Metro Fire Department, a private company, was listed as the fire coverage for this area.
With current fire stations, Rural Metro would be over an hour away from the two developments in question. When asked about this at the public meeting by Thunderbird Fire Chief Allen Allcott, Weed stated that South Metro Fire Association would actually be the one to handle fire related calls.
“You’re here saying that you’re using South Maricopa Fire Association, which is basically a glorified homeowners association,” said Allcott at the meeting. “I’d like to see one of their trucks, I’d like to see one of their people out here.”
Weed was unable to explain why Rural Metro was listed in client paperwork, and could not address why Thunderbird Fire, a volunteer fire association with 30 years of service to the community and the closest available department, was not considered.
Due to the citizen concerns at the first public hearing, a second one was held on May 25 at the Thunderbird Farms Fire Station with Pinal County Supervisor Jeffrey McClure and other county officials present. Around 70 residents gathered in the cinderblock station, fanning themselves with fliers in the heat of a building with no AC.
The subject of fire coverage was again broached at the meeting.
Thunderbird Fire currently operates within the boundaries of a taxing district, and are now in the process of annexation to extend their reach. That’s not to say that Allcott and his team of volunteers don’t regularly extend past their boundaries — over 90% of the fires they fight happen outside the boundaries of their current tax district.
At the meeting, Allcott passionately expressed what Thunderbird Fire volunteers have done for the community.
“We’ve got volunteers that leave their families, they risk their lives,” Allcott said. “I apologize for my emotion, but after 20 plus years of leaving my wife and my kids in the middle of the night, the developers come in here and say they’re gonna walk over us, shove us out of the way. Were they here on Christmas Day when people’s houses burned down?”
Thunderbird Fire currently has a district of about 12 square miles, but their fire coverage reaches as far as 120 square miles past their boundary.
Most of their trucks are from the 1980’s, and they operate on community donations to maintain their fleet and equipment.
The incoming developer for these homes has a few options for fire coverage. They could sign off on the annexation and be included in the Thunderbird Fire District, or they could leave the residents to subscribe to a fire-based service. Impact fees could go toward bolstering the fire department of choice.
Representatives for Coe and Van Lou were not present at the second meeting, and have not responded to repeated requests for comment by PinalCentral. It remains unclear what these developments will do for fire coverage.
Rural Metro does not provide service in the area, Shawn Gilleland, public information officer Central Arizona for the company, confirmed.
Policing is also a major concern of residents. Attendees were outwardly doubtful when officials suggested a new substation, and members shared concerns that wait times would go up with new residents.
Lauren Reimer, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said that the region that Hidden Valley and Thunderbird Farms are in has an average response time for an active emergency with lives at risk of 11:27, while the response time for slightly less emergent calls is 13:54.
“Our county has seen great population growth over the last few years, and tailoring our staffing and deputy saturation to fit each community’s needs as they change is a process we are accustomed to and prepared for,” Reimer stated.
But the public safety issues rural areas are faced with continue. On June 22, a fatal head-on collision happened at 1:44 a.m. on Maricopa-Casa Grande Highway near Russell Road.
The 911 call was picked up by Maricopa Dispatch and pinpointed using cell tower information. Jennifer Hagen, Communications Administrator for the city, identified the call as a “boundary call” due to the area of the crash.
She said dispatchers have a few different ways they can pinpoint the location of an emergency, the first being cell tower data.
If the cell tower information is vague or inaccurate, the dispatcher can re-transmit for a better location, or enter an address manually if the transmission is not possible. That night, Phoenix dispatch was notified of the fire through Maricopa dispatch as they handle all emergency and fire related calls for Maricopa.
The address, however, was entered into the system incorrectly. As a result, Phoenix dispatch was not able to locate the area of the accident or dispatch Maricopa fire services.
PCSO was able to respond, as well as Casa Grande Fire Department — which does not use Phoenix dispatch for their fire services.
By the time Maricopa fire was notified, their emergency services were no longer required. They would eventually arrive on scene to provide backup and services to other firefighters.
Hagen called the issue a one-off, and said it was rectified by morning.
Public safety in unincorporated areas remains an ongoing issue, one that is exacerbated by the exceptionally fast population growth over the last two decades. With no plateau in sight, rural residents are left wondering if their way of life will be adequately sustained, and what the definition of adequacy is in the eyes of future developers.