May 31, 2006 - Golder Ranch Fire District and Rural/Metro Fire Department got the first real test of their mutual aid agreement when units from both responded to an Oro Valley house fire on May 24.

Golder Ranch was the first to respond to the fire at 1300 block of W. Cactus Bloom Lane, near the intersection of Lambert Lane and La Canada Drive. A neighbor across the street called 911 at around 9 p.m. after seeing smoke and flames coming from the townhouse.

After learning a woman was trapped in the house, Golder Ranch escalated the emergency call to two alarm, said John Sullivan, spokesman for Golder Ranch. This brought in additional fire units to assist the three Golder Ranch fire engines already responding, including a fire engine from Rural/Metro.

"When we're dealing with both a fire and a rescue operation, we call (it) a second alarm," Sullivan said.

A one-alarm fire brings in the nearest three fire units, and all three of these were Golder Ranch engines in Oro Valley. A two-alarm fire brings in the next three closest units, and just as the mutual aid agreement was designed to do in February, Rural/Metro joined two other Golder Ranch units responding to the second alarm.

"The fire was thirty percent involved when we first got on the scene. And then we had the victim who was basically 100 -percent second- and third-degree burns over her body. We had to treat her while we tried to fight the fire," said John Fink, Golder Ranch fire chief.

Ursula Maier, 55, was pulled from the blaze by fire fighters and transported to the burn unit at St. Mary's Hospital. She was later transported to the Maricopa Medical Center burn unit in Phoenix, but died from her injuries shortly after arriving, said Liz Wright, spokeswoman for the Oro Valley Police Department. Maier was disabled and had been the only one in the house when the fire occurred, Wright said.

Although the fire service response went off without a hitch, the call simply came in too late to save Maier, said Rick Flores, spokesman for Rural/Metro.

"A fire can burn for quite some time inside a closed residence before it produces enough smoke and flames to be visible to neighbors or passers-by," Flores said.

Although the cause of the fire is still unknown, the fire burned mostly within a single room, which Fink said was believed to be a study. However, there was enough damage to the home that it is considered completely destroyed, Fink said.

Golder Ranch and Rural/Metro signed an agreement in February after years of negotiation where Golder Ranch would become the sole fire service provider in Oro Valley. It also was agreed that Rural/Metro subsidiary Southwest Ambulance eventually would become the sole emergency transport provider in Oro Valley. The agreement went into effect April 1, along with a mutual aid agreement that would allow the nearest fire unit from either department to respond to a fire emergency. Southwest Ambulance will serve all of Oro Valley beginning in October.

"We're pleased with the progress that has been made so far. A lot of people may not realize the change in service until they dial 911, but we have more fire-fighters on the street to serve the community, and its only going to get better as we unroll this agreement and build more stations," Sullivan said.

Golder Ranch has been building a new headquarters complex at Golder Ranch and Oracle roads and is planning to move into its new administration building sometime in the next couple of weeks. A new fire station at the site is expected to be completed in about a month, while a second phase of construction will add training and maintenance facilities by the end of the year, Sullivan said.

"Because of the growth, we've had to increase our administrative staff, and that's why we're going from about 1,400 square feet to 10,000 square feet in our new administration building," Fink said. "We have had to put off hiring all these people because of a lack of office space, and now we'll be able to hire them."

Golder Ranch's soon-to-be-abandoned headquarters is a cluster of unimpressive modular buildings dating to 1979. Some of its pricey fire engines must be left out in the elements due to the lack of space.

"Our headquarters now is essentially a fire trailer that has been modified over the years to accommodate our firefighters, but we have them all crammed into a single room where they sleep and eat. Basically, it's an old, dilapidated building that needs to be replaced," Sullivan said. "We now have newer vehicles, more vehicles and more needs. We had a lot of the vehicles stored outside, and that's not the best place to store them. That's why this new facility was created."

Fink said he is adding a human resources director, a fire inspector, and a public educator to his administrative staff, among others. He said Golder Ranch will also be hiring more firefighters to staff several new fire stations already in the pipeline.

"We anticipate 27 new firefighters will be added next year, and 24 the following year. Within the next three years, we will be opening three additional stations," Fink said.

This includes a fire station at Lambert Lane and La Cañada Drive that is under review by Oro Valley. Fink expects this station to open in 14 to 16 months. Another station is being built near the intersection of Linda Vista and Oracle roads.

"Two of those are in Oro Valley, and we'll have another one in SaddleBrooke because of the growth up there, and then one north of Oracle Junction in SaddleBrooke Ranch. About a year later, we'll build a fifth one farther north of Oracle Junction in Willow Springs," Fink said, adding that all are expected to be built in four years.

The construction of these stations will be funded by a $13-million bond passed by Golder Ranch voters in 2004, Fink said. About $6.3 million of that bond has been allocated for the new Golder Ranch headquarters complex, which was $300,000 over budget due to the unexpected increase in the cost of construction materials after New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Still, there should be enough left over for the new stations, Fink said.

Despite the growth Golder Ranch expects in upcoming years, he said there is a strong possibility the district will lower its tax levy next year.

"In particular for 2007, the assessed values of homes in Oro Valley went up astronomically. So even with all this new growth and all our new hires, I'm hoping we'll be able to lower our tax levy," Fink said. "We're going to be adding a lot of new area, so now we're going to have a lot more assessed value in the fire district."

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