A man and his family were away when their home in Surprise, Ariz., burned down in August.
According to KSAZ Fox 10, when Justin Purcell and his family returned the firefighters could not put out the flames fast enough to save their home. They still do not know what caused the fire.
“It’s definitely a shocker when you come back and your house is gone,” Purcell told the news station.
But he was even more astonished when he received a bill two weeks later from private Rural Metro Fire Department, totaling $19,825 for their services in an unincorporated area without fire coverage.
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“Definitely was a surprise,” Justin said. “It was a shocker when we got that.”
Purcell itemized the bill, which listed a charge of $1,500 a truck per hour. Each truck had three firefighters.
“I think they were paying the firefighters $150 an hour and there were several of them,” said Purcell.
“Those numbers are set based on 65 years on tradition buying equipment, training, operating a fire service,” Colin Williams, public information officer for Rural Metro, told KSAZ.
The bill includes Surprise firefighters who responded first.
“In this case, [Surprise] firefighters responded,” explained Williams. “They did receive mutual aid from other departments. Once the fire is knocked down and brought under control, Rural Metro units then provide the overhaul and do essentially the mop up, if you will. So that takes a significant amount of time and a significant amount of resources.”
KSAZ asked to look at the documentation about the mutual aid agreement, but were told by Williams that there was nothing in writing.
“We do have what I call a gentleman’s agreement,” he said.
Surprise firefighters responded to the fire within 13 minutes, and it took Rural Metro 24 minutes to arrive. Their closest firehouse is located 20 miles away.
“They got here late and his house is totally gone,” said Brian Repp, who lives nearby. “Then they’re going to charge him $20,000 and they let his house go. I don’t think that’s right at all.”
Area residents pay a “fire district assistance tax.” It’s a county-wide tax, which does not go towards fire service, but helps fund volunteer fire districts.
Yahoo! News reported that Arizona State Senator Chester Crandell admitted fire coverage in the state’s rural areas is a mess, saying: “Having county islands that have no service in, in uh, fireboards that are just packing up and leaving, going bankrupt … It’s certainly something that needs to be addressed.”
But until then, residents living in the area have other options, including: buy a yearly $500 subscription from Rural Metro for fire service, take their chances in getting a large bill if their house burns, or form their own fire district, which could take months.
The Purcells are staying at another place for the time being, but with a newborn baby they have no idea where they’re going to get the money to pay for the Rural Metro bill.