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Ironwood Hotshots to be disbanded

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

Just as wildfire season is coming upon us, a local elite firefighting crew is in its last season.

The 20 Ironwood Hotshots are based in Tucson and they fight wildland fires across Arizona and the country.

They are part of the Northwest Fire District, and now the district is saying it can't afford to keep them.

The NWFD says this is the first of many changes as it focuses more on services within the district. 

Northwest Fire announced Tuesday it will disband the crew after this upcoming wildfire season.

To say the least, it has become an emotional issue in the district.

There has been talk that Northwest Fire made the decision because of expensive lawsuits that arose after the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots near Prescott last year.

The contention that Yarnell was the reason was made in an online petition that said the fire and lawsuits that followed it forced Northwest Fire to make a hasty decision to eliminate its hotshots.

Northwest Fire says Yarnell was not the reason for the decision.

The petition asks the public to urge the fire district to save the Ironwood Hotshots.

Northwest Fire says it has made a financial and organizational decision.

"These are some of the decisions that this organization is faced with in the interest of providing better service in the streets, that are being funded by the 120,000 taxpayers of the Northwest Fire District," says Northwest Fire District Assistant Chief Brad Bradley. "It is our intent to drive the tax rate down."

Northwest contends there are several inaccuracies in the online petition that claims the fire district acted hastily in the wake of the Yarnell Hill Fire.

"The Yarnell incident was not a factor in the decision to disband this team. Local protection will not be sacrificed in the event of a wildland fire," says Northwest Fire District Captain Adam Goldberg.

Goldberg says, out of more than 100 hotshot crews nationally, four are not supported by federal agencies.

He says, of those four, three are supported by a county or a state.

Goldberg says Northwest Fire is the only local agency sponsoring a hotshot crew. 

Northwest says this is not the first time there have been discussions about disbanding the hotshot crew, 13 of whom are seasonal employees.

Assistant Chief Bradley says the district is facing several financial challenges.

He says new legislation will cap the district's ability to grow and fund its operations while many costs are rising.

"We've got public safety retirement pension increases that we're going to have to manage. We have the Affordable Care Act that, in its full rollout, would require us to increase the cost associated with health insurance that we would provide to seasonal employees, roughly to the tune of about a thousand dollars a month per person. That has never been budgeted and would need to be budgeted. That has an impact on our tax rate," Bradley says.

Northwest had feared that the cost of insuring firefighters would rise after what happened at the Yarnell Hill Fire.

However, the district says those costs did not rise this year.

Goldberg says Northwest wants to focus on core firefighting and medical response services inside the district while reducing costs and lowering taxes.

He says it can't do that with the expense of a hotshot crew that works mostly outside the district.

The organization says the federal government pays only direct costs of fighting wildland fires, not the indirect ones such as insurance, administrative costs and equipment maintenance.

These explanations do not sit well with members of the Ironwood Hotshots.

Hotshot John Hoellerich is the author of the online petition.

"The original reasons that we were told that they were considering getting rid of the crew were due to insurance rate problems. And I can't--to be honest, I really don't know what the reasons are now because the insurance rates did not go up," Hoellerich says.

He contends Northwest Fire can afford to keep the group.

"We were actually either breaking even or in the black as far as every season has gone in the past," Hoellerich says.

Northwest Fire says the Ironwood Hotshots have been a source of pride and have won many commendations.

All of that makes the decision to disband the crew all the more difficult for the hotshots to take.

"We have done nothing wrong and have gone above and beyond the call of duty with nothing but positive encouragement from all of you. To take away this crew after such applause from you does not make sense at all," says former Ironwood Hotshot Joseph Lainson.

Of the 20 Ironwood Hotshots, seven are full time Northwest Fire employees and will be moved to other jobs.

The department says their addition will help reduce overtime hours.

The other 13 hotshots are seasonal wildland firefighters who work during the wildfire season.

Captain Goldberg says if federal rules allow, those 13 will be able to apply to be accepted into the fire fighting academy this year if they like.

We asked why this issue did not require public hearings or the approval of the elected Northwest Fire board.

Captain Goldberg says it's an operational decision and, as such, does not need to be brought before the board.

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