A plane drops fire retardant to help contain the Elgin Bridge Fire last May, one of several fires that both Sonoita-Elgin and Patagonia firefighers worked on in 2022. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

The Patagonia and Sonoita-Elgin fire services both had a busy 2022, and anticipate more of the same in 2023. 

“It used to be that the wildfire season began in May, but recent history shows that the fire season is now year round,” said Patagonia Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company Chief Ike Isakson in a recent interview.

Patagonia, the only all-volunteer company in Santa Cruz County, responded to 11 wildland fires last year. Four were in the Patagonia area; the other seven were mutual aid responses to neighboring communities. 

On Feb. 16, 2022, Patagonia responded to a large wildland fire in the Lochiel area of Lochiel near the border with two brush engines and two water tenders and eight volunteers. They were joined by Sonoita-Elgin and the United States Forest Service. 

In early May, Patagonia worked on the San Rafael Fire in the Lochiel area, a massive wildfire that consumed nearly 12,000 acres and was two miles wide at one point. Local, mutual aid, state, federal, and agency firefighters saved several historical structures and other properties. “A brave and successful fight,” Chief Isakson said.

To be in a constant state of readiness to serve their community, the Patagonia Company’s 30 volunteer firefighters do a lot of training. In 2022 that included three days of training at Sonoita-Elgin, in addition to the regular monthly training sessions at the firehouse. Five members completed two weeks of classroom and hands-on training, while four members attended the Phoenix Fire School, adding to the capabilities of the company. “These are good young people (in their 30s and 40s), and are well-trained,” said Chief Isakson. 

Last year was also busy for the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District, which is staffed by Chief Marc Meredith, Administrative Assistant Kristen Dineley, three Captains (one for each shift) and a crew of 45 firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, and dispatchers. 

The company fought brush fires in Gardner Canyon, at the Empire Ranch, and at a location off Route 83, as well as the San Rafael Fire. The Vaughn Loop Fire in May was closely followed by the Elgin Bridge Fire, which climbed the Mustang Mountains above Mustang Valley. That fire was quenched with the assistance of other departments and agencies after several days of efforts, including flame retardant drops by airplanes and water drops by helicopters. Sonoita-Elgin crew members also traveled to New Mexico to provide help at the Black Fire, as well as to Merkel, TX.

Chief Meredith said that he expects the coming fire season to be very busy. “It was a good monsoon last year,” he said, “which means lots of vegetation growth, providing plenty of fuel for wildland fires once the brush dies out and the wind blows.” 

Because Sonoita-Elgin is designated an “All Hazards Agency,” it is tasked with responding to medical emergencies, public assistance calls, wildland fires, structure fires, and hazmat emergencies across the district’s 325 square miles. 

“At the end of the day, 80% of the calls are medical,” said Chief Meredith. Public assistance calls range from unlocking car and house doors, people needing assistance getting up after falls, and snake removal, 90% of which are rattlesnakes. With two state highways intersecting in the district, motor vehicle accidents are not uncommon. 

Sonoita-Elgin is currently equipped with twelve vehicles and four utility apparatus – including two antiques – to provide mobility to the crews. The company’s training of personnel runs the gamut from low frequency/high intensity such as rope training, IV training, extrication, and swift water rescue to the daily training each shift undergoes. Additionally, all personnel complete requirements for continuing certification in their fields.

Both Chief Isakson and Chief 

Meredith were pleased with the support and cooperation shared among the Santa Cruz County agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department, Santa Cruz County Search and Rescue, and the fire chiefs of the six districts in the county. Nogales, Rio Rico, Tubac, Tumacacori, Sonoita-Elgin and Patagonia chiefs meet once a month to discuss training, strengths and weaknesses, mutual aid and so forth. 

Chef Isakson said he would like to see “some 18- and 19-year-olds come in and start training.” But if that doesn’t happen, he is very proud of the Patagonia firefighters right now and the department as it presently stands. The Town continues to contribute $65,000 to the fire service to defray operating and maintenance costs, with no charge for water. 

The organization has to be resourceful when it comes to getting equipment. A FEMA grant is paying for a new tender – a 3,200-gallon unit built in Minnesota – which will arrive at the station in February. Two other vehicles have been gifted. The volunteers maintain the equipment. 

Meanwhile, the company continues to run the Annual Steak Fry in June in the Park as a fundraiser. The annual Burger Burn, again in the Park during the Sky Island Artisan Market, offers up a burger dinner while raising a few more dollars for the company. 

Other events include giving school kids tours of the firehouse, rides on the trucks, participating in the Halloween “Trunk or Treat” celebration, and sharing fire preparedness information to the community. The Fourth of July and Christmas Parades are always special with the inclusion of those wonderful red trucks, sirens wailing, overflowing with the Town’s firefighters. 

“We’re here for the community,” said Chief Isakson. “No ego. Anything we can do to help, wherever we can do it. And we depend on our community as much as they depend on us.” 

Sonoita-Elgin also enjoys participating in community service. (It does not fundraise because the residents and businesses of the district pay taxes to support the Fire District.) The Annual Pancake Breakfast hosted by the firefighters and volunteers will be held in 2023 when the weather warms enough so folks can enjoy breakfast, at no charge, in the bays. 

Crews are always on hand at the Santa Cruz County Fair for laughs, water play, and community interaction. Fire Safety Day at the Elgin School gives the students a chance to interact with the firefighters and equipment. Toys for Tots donations can be dropped off at the station during the season for distribution to kids for Christmas. 

Chief Meredith enjoys hosting occasional “Coffee With the Chief” Saturday morning sessions, where folks can drop in and informally chat with the chief at the station.

“Our purpose in being here is to help, no matter how you need us,” he said. “We’re here for you.”