The Northwest Fire District announced Tuesday it would disband its hotshot crew at the end of the wildfire season as a cost-saving measure and an effort to improve core services and reduce the tax rate for district residents.
“The simple fact is that their resourcing and overhead demands are intensive,” Capt. Adam Goldberg, a district spokesman, said about the firefighting unit that he praised as being “a bright and shining star for the district.”
He said the decision to eliminate the hotshot crew came down to the need to focus on the department’s “core services” to residents. The specially trained crew is deployed to fight major wildfires, mainly in other areas, and is not used to fight structure fires or respond to other emergency calls in the district.
Seven full-time employees of the Ironwood Hotshots, who focus strictly on wildland-fire-related duties and special projects in the off-season, will be moved to fill “critical open positions” in the fire district that are now being staffed using overtime, Goldberg said at a news conference.
Thirteen seasonal employees of the team will be let go after the wildfire season, which starts in March and ends around October, which is standard procedure.
Goldberg disputed claims made in an online petition on change.org that the decision was made to prevent costly lawsuits, like those filed after the Yarnell Hill Fire last year claimed the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
“The original reasons that we were told that they were considering getting rid of the crew were due to insurance rate problems,” said hotshot crew member John Hoellerich, who started the petition. “I don’t know what the reasons are now because the rates did not go up.”
Goldberg said the department’s insurance carrier did not project any additional costs to the agency this year, and the Yarnell fire did not influence the department’s decision to disband the crew.
Joseph Lainson, who was part of the hotshot crew for four seasons, said crew members were devastated and confused when they learned of plans to disband the team. He said the team for many years received praise from the district and the public for its work, including their efforts in the Yarnell fire.
Goldberg said the Ironwood team is the only hotshot crew that is not operated by a federal, state or county agency.
“The crew must be deployed outside this community in order to generate the revenues needed to offset these expenses,” he said. “This conflicts with our primary mission of core services delivery at the local level.”
The district is reimbursed by the state for direct costs associated with the crew like fuel, wages and overtime, but cannot charge the state for overhead costs, said David Gephart, the finance director for the district.
The reimbursement rate for wages was $39.50 per hour for each firefighter from last year, and this year it went up to $40.50,
Gephart said. But it’s all of the associated costs that are not reimbursed that make the program unsustainable for the district.
Some years the district has lost money, and others it has made money from the crew, he said. However, the last three fiscal years the wildland fund has ended the budget year with a deficit ranging from $300,000 to $1 million.
Northwest fire officials said disbanding the crew is one of several coming changes in the district to keep the property tax rate from continuing to rise.
“It’s not the only organizational and operational change this district is going to make over the course of the next 90 to 120 days,” said Assistant Chief Brad Bradley. “It is, however, our first.”