On Tuesday the Northwest Fire District which serves the northwest metropolitan area of Tucson, Arizona announced they were disbanding their Ironwood Hotshot crew at the end of the 2014 wildland fire season. Various reasons for the decision were reported in the media, with representatives of the District quoted as saying it was mostly for financial considerations. John Hoellerich a firefighter on the Ironwood Hotshots who started a petition to retain the crew, said it was related to lawsuits filed against the Prescott Fire Department over the fatal Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 members of the Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.
When the concept of having a hotshot crew was sold to the Tucson community, one of the justifications was that the 20-person firefighting crew would make money for the district, or at least break even.
David Gephart, the District’s Finance Director, told Wildfire Today the crew is being disbanded for “financial and operational” reasons. He said one of the operational considerations is that the District has some vacant structural firefighting positions it needs to fill, and the seven permanent members of the crew will be offered those positions. Four of those seven have already been through the structural fire academy, while three have not but will be scheduled to receive the training.
When a firefighting resource, such as a hotshot crew or fire engine, from one agency helps to suppress a fire in another jurisdiction for an extended period of time, formal agreements usually stipulate that the lending agency is financially reimbursed for their expenses. The reimbursement amount is based on the crewperson hours worked. That rate is almost three times the actual hourly rate the District pays the firefighters, in order to cover other expenses related to the fire assignment. For example, the Prescott Fire Department was reimbursed for 95.5 percent of the total expenses of operating the Granite Mountain Hotshots in the 2012 fiscal year, according to an article in The Daily Courier.
Mr. Gephart provided figures for the fiscal years 2011 through 2013 showing that the operational expenses for the Ironwood Hotshots for that three year period were $7.3 million. They were reimbursed for $7.2 million, or, 98.6 percent of their costs.
Right now there is a positive balance in the Hotshots’ account of $1.2 million when considering payments the District expects to receive for fire assignments last year, Mr. Gephart said.
We asked if the 200 other firefighters that the District employs were expected to generate their own funding, and Mr. Gephart said they were not.
He pointed out that there are other costs for maintaining the Hotshot crew that are are not included above which are more difficult to put on a spread sheet, including overhead, indirect, capital needs, and IT expenses.
Since the crew came within one percent of being self-supporting, we asked why the Hotshots were created in the first place. Mr. Gephart said they expected the crew to make money for the District, or in a worst case, break even. He went on to say future costs will have a negative effect on the crew’s financial situation, such as a new requirement that the 13 seasonal firefighters have health insurance, and increases in the cost of pensions.