Florence Fire Station No. 1

The Florence Fire Department is defending its decision to refuse to respond to a rural home fire outside of town.

FLORENCE — The Florence Fire Department is taking some heat for not responding to a rural home on fire that ultimately burned down.

Town officials responded that they can’t leave the town unprotected to battle a blaze far out of town when no human lives are in danger.

Fire Chief David Strayer said if someone is trapped in a fire, Florence is going to respond. He noted the department responds to highway accidents out of town to extricate victims.

“We care about people and do our best to help people when we can,” he said. But if there’s no danger to life, “it’s a tougher call.

“We can’t abandon our community that is paying for our services” to respond to areas that have been repeatedly told they have no service, and have actually rebuffed attempts to provide them fire coverage, Strayer said. “Our first duty is to our citizens.”

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office asked for Florence and other surrounding agencies to respond at 1:59 p.m. on June 24. The mobile home fire was southwest of St. Anthony’s Monastery, about 12 miles from Florence. The Florence department was busy responding to calls in town and didn’t respond to the remote fire, Strayer said.

He said residents in that area must understand they have no fire coverage, and whatever they may receive is based on the goodwill of people with the resources available.

Strayer noted there are no hydrants in that area, and said the best Florence could do is bring 750 gallons of water. Florence doesn’t have equipment designed to travel over dirt roads and washes, he added.

The Golder Ranch Fire District north of Tucson, which did respond, has the right equipment and can spare a couple of engines and still have their community covered, Strayer said. “We can’t.”

Florence must consider the risks of leaving the town unprotected, “especially if no one else is coming,” Strayer said. He said Rural Metro Fire Department — 12 miles from town in the other direction — refuses to come out, except to cover Florence’s station while Florence responds. Often they won’t back up the station in person but offer to provide backup from their station.

“We have no confidence in getting coverage from them on a consistent basis,” Strayer said.

With no one else responding, “that puts us in a dilemma,” Strayer said. “We own that incident, and can’t just turn around and leave.” Strayer and Ben Bitter, assistant to the town manager, said if the town has resources available, it will try to assist, but the town prefers not be tied up in the primary role.

Rural Metro spokesman Shawn Gilleland said the service is funded by memberships and subscriptions and doesn't offer subscriptions in the area of the June 24 fire.

“We have no contractual liability to respond to those fires,” Gilleland said. He added Rural Metro does have a mutual aid agreement with Florence, and available units would back up (or “back fill”) Florence if Florence decided to go. He didn’t know if Rural Metro had units available at the time of the June 24 fire.

Bitter said residents may believe they’re paying for some kind of coverage when they see “Fire District Assistance Tax” on their property tax bills. But this money typically just goes to reimburse departments that respond for rescue operations on state highways.

Strayer said as a rural area becomes more populous, “It makes sense to form a fire district.”

Strayer said his department would be hearing an entirely different criticism if it had become tied up at a fire far out of town while someone in town suffered a heart attack or a house burned down.

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