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A burning issue for county islands

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Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2006 5:58 am

As flames broke out in one of Apache Junction’s first restaurants and garages, the nearest firetruck barreled down Apache Trail to save the day.

It was 1955, and the closest truck rushed 20 miles from downtown Mesa — but it never had a chance.

The destruction inspired the then tiny town to form a volunteer fire department. By 1984, that department had become the Apache Junction Fire District that now protects 58 square miles of municipal and county land in Pinal County.

“I think it’s extremely important everybody have fire coverage,” said district spokesman and Battalion Chief David Montgomery.

Yet, he said, there are still pockets of Pinal County not covered by his district or the private Rural/Metro Fire Department — a situation there and elsewhere that prompts the question: How do you ensure everyone has fire and emergency protection?

As Rural/Metro Fire Department prepares to pull out of the 20 Maricopa County islands in Gilbert on July 1, all eyes have settled on the immediate predicament of 9,000 residents there. About 63 percent are involved in annexation proceedings to join Gilbert, while another large group is pushing to create a fire district that would pay Gilbert Fire Department for its services.

The town has fought a new state law that essentially allows only county island residents in Gilbert to force the town to provide fire coverage. A lawsuit the town filed seeking to repeal the law will play out in court later this month.

But while Gilbert’s county islands face the danger of soon losing fire protection, the problem could affect other East Valley communities in the future. In many cases, county island residents want to maintain their rural lifestyle and resist annexation, but local officials argue it’s unfair to offer town services to nontaxpaying residents, who do not bring to the community state funds, which are based on population.

In Tempe, for instance, a small number of county islands have had virtually no fire protection since Rural/ Metro closed its closest stations in Scottsdale last summer. While Tempe Fire Department will sometimes respond to a fire to ensure there is no loss of life and to prevent the fire from jumping to another rooftop, their trucks won’t put a fire out, assistant fire chief Jim Gaintner said.

“We actually only respond to county islands in those cases were there’s an indication there might clearly be a life endangered, that we could safe a life,” he said.

Mesa has about 39,000 county island residents served by Rural/Metro. And while company officials have said they have no plans to leave the area, Mesa Fire Department officials said they know it’s a possibility and could cause problems such as those facing Gilbert.

“It is certainly something we have in the back of our minds,” deputy fire chief Mike Dunn said.

He said the city would encourage annexation to help cover the need to build two fire stations necessary if Mesa had to service its two largest county island communities: Leisure World and Dreamland Villa.

For at least two years, various legislators have mulled how to ensure there is some kind of option for every predicament, to ensure life-saving response.

Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler, sponsored a law that has allowed Chandler to negotiate with Maricopa County to create a subscription-based fire service for county islands. Chandler currently services the areas for free as the city and county are held up in negotiations. For more than a year, the process has been stalled out of concern over who would be liable if the city did not respond in the same way to a warehouse fire in a county island that doesn’t need to follow city fire code and is at risk of putting firefighters’ lives in jeopardy.

Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, a county island resident, said he plans to try to expand the recently passed fire district law that allows islanders to force Gilbert to provide service to other communities. However, the broadened concept had opposition during this legislative session.

Fire coverage concerns in the Valley are not new. In 1948, Rural/Metro was founded after the Phoenix Fire Department allowed a house on a county island to burn, said company spokeswoman Alison Cooper. Since that time, the company has often been the only choice for unincorporated areas. However, any area in the state can petition its county to form a fire district or can form a voluntary fire department.

In many cases, new residents moving to rural Arizona aren’t aware of their fireprotection status, said Joe LaFortune, public safety coordinator for Queen Creek.

“There are new residents coming to town, coming from other areas, and it may be their expectation that fire and medical services are already provided,” he said. In Queen Creek, as with many areas, residents must personally subscribe to Rural/Metro.

Queen Creek officials want to avoid Gilbert’s predicament by establishing a fire department or district that would charge residents in town and on county islands equally, LaFortune said. One option is to contract with Rural/Metro, as other cities in the northeast Valley have, and charge a fee for a fire district that encompasses the entire Queen Creek planning area. But a citizens committee meeting on the issue has not ruled out a town fire department.

But for Dave Bramlett, it is too late for future planning. The father of two young children is waiting to find out whether he’ll have fire coverage on his Gilbert county island that he doesn’t want to have annexed.

“I don’t know why this has gone on as long as it has,” he said. “I guess it just finally takes somebody to say, ‘Well this is ridiculous. Let’s fix the problem.’ I think it’s very important this law is expanded.”

But former Gilbert vice mayor Linda Abbott said people who want town services should become full town participants, or establish their own fire district.

“They have options,” she said.

COUNTY ISLAND FIRE PROTECTION

APACHE JUNCTION

• Apache Junction Fire District provides coverage to the city and county islands, with all homeowners taxed the same. The 60-square-mile district is separate from the city, which incurs no cost. That means county and city people are treated exactly the same.

CHANDLER

• The city is negotiating with Maricopa County to implement subscription-based fire coverage for county island residents. Those who don’t subscribe would be charged if the department responds to an emergency once the subscription process is established. Rural/Metro is technically servicing the area, but with its closest facility in a Gilbert county island, the Chandler Fire Department responds to just about all calls for no current reimbursement. There are 1,800 parcels in Chandler county islands, but the number of residents is unknown.

• Sun Lakes Fire District, formed in 1978, covers the 18,000-resident Sun Lakes senior community, a county island in Chandler’s planning boundary. The district also covers other nearby Chandler area county islands.

GILBERT

• Rural/Metro Fire Department is leaving the 9,000 county islanders residing on about 3,800 parcels July 1. About 63 percent are involved in annexation hearings. Others want to create a fire district using a new law that would force the Gilbert Fire Department to respond if no other company bids. Gilbert has filed suit to repeal the law.

MESA

• Rural/Metro responds to almost all calls among the estimated 39,000 county islanders in Mesa’s planning area. Leisure World and Dreamland Villa senior communities are the largest. Mesa Fire Department, however, at times assists Rural/Metro without reimbursement. If Rural/Metro leaves, the city would plan two additional stations and encourage annexation.

QUEEN CREEK

• Rural/Metro now operates one fire station that about 47 percent of residents pay for. A citizens committee is reviewing a myriad of possibilities, from creating a town fire department to creating a fee structure to require all residents to pay for contracted Rural/Metro services.

TEMPE

• Rural/Metro pulled out of Tempe’s county islands in July as it exited Scottsdale, which had the closest equipment for response. Tempe fire officials will save life and prevent fires from spreading but will not put out county island fires. Less than a dozen homes exist on one south Tempe island, while other islands are predominantly industrial zones in north Tempe.

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