The structure is charred and black. The lawn is covered in ash and debris. You can taste the burn in the air.
When the Mills Fire Department arrived at 11 p.m. Thursday, the flames were licking the upper limbs of the cottonwood trees in the front yard. The porch had been completely engulfed.
Within 10 minutes, firefighters reduced the flames to smolders. It took 4 1/2 hours to completely extinguish the fire, but the first few minutes, when the most damage was done and where the potential for more damage existed, mattered most.
“The roof could have gave way and the whole building could have come down,” Mills Fire Chief Justin Melin said.
The one-story ranch house on Midwest Avenue, built in 1920 and maintained by the same family for more than 50 years, is unsalvageable but standing, Melin said. Nobody was hurt in the fire. The house was uninhabited save for the personal affects the owner stored there.
Fire crews were at the house Friday morning, boarding up windows and looking for what might have started the blaze.
The night before, when a Mills fire engine pulled up to the fire, it was the only engine on site. It arrived three minutes after departing the Mills fire station. Natrona County fire engine No. 13 left at the same time as Mills’ but arrived 10 minutes later. The county’s engine No. 7 arrived five minutes after that. Casper Fire-EMS was called several minutes after the initial call and arrived at 11:10 p.m.
On July 1, when the Mills Fire Department is reduced to administrative-only roles, the burden to respond to a fire like this will fall to the county, to Casper and to the area’s other fire departments in Evansville and Bar Nunn.
Area experts say the decision to eliminate Mills’ fire service will increase emergency response times across Natrona County and raise homeowners insurance rates for Mills residents.
The Mills Town Council voted at its April 24 meeting to lay off nine firefighters and eliminate the department’s ability to respond to emergencies in the area, effective July 1.
Mills Mayor Seth Coleman has called the decision a budgetary necessity. The fire department is the second-most expensive entity Mills funds, after the police department. Coleman has said in the past that the fire department has not been able to generate enough revenue, and the town has been spending 1-cent funds, which are intended for infrastructure projects, on firefighters’ salaries.
As a way to illustrate the fire department’s call volume, Coleman included a summary of the department’s calls between July 2018 and April 2019 in a May 3 press release. That document lists 498 total calls in that span.
According to Mills Fire Department records, the department has gone on 860 calls in that time frame. When asked about the discrepancy, Coleman said the numbers he used were only for calls in Mills.
“While the town is happy to render assistance wherever it can outside of Mills’ boundaries, that’s not the primary function of the department and it’s not the necessary focus of the Town Council,” Coleman wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune. “Mills is and must be the focus for the Town Council and the town’s fire department and emergency services.” Coleman answered questions Friday via email because he said he did not have time for a phone interview before deadline.
Some residents have questioned the timing of the decision to get rid of the fire department. In a previous interview with the Star-Tribune, Mills Fire Department union president Jeremy Todd said he believed the decision to eliminate the firefighting jobs was retaliation over union contract negotiations.
He said the town presented the Mills professional firefighters association with a two-year contract in late March. When the union pushed back on one of the elements of the contract, he said Mills officials walked away from negotiations.
“If you present a contract, I assume you have the money to pay for that contract,” he said at the time. He did say the union was informed of budgetary concerns, but said there was never any indication that the firefighters were at risk of losing their jobs.
Coleman flatly denied the allegation.
“I would absolutely disagree with that,” he said.
At the May 8 Mills Town Council meeting, residents spent two hours pleading with officials at town hall to keep the fire department. A line of people wanting to address the council stretched into the hallway.
Many invoked life-or-death circumstances and some offered suggestions for how to fund the department, including holding fundraisers or considering a subscription-based ambulance service.
Everybody who spoke at the meeting urged the Town Council to keep the fire department.
In an email, Coleman told the Star-Tribune town officials are seriously considering all the suggestions made at that meeting.
Coleman also told the Star-Tribune via email Mills Town Council is evaluating every option to fill the void losing the fire department will create.
“The Town is working on providing that there will be no lapse in emergency services and all avenues are and will be explored in order to do this,” he wrote in the email.
Coleman has declined to provide specifics on what those plans might entail but said at the last Town Council meeting it would be “shortly.”
In the past, Coleman has said the plan is to contract with other fire departments in the area.
Representatives of the county’s other fire departments told the Star-Tribune nobody from the Mills government has contacted them to discuss options.
Casper Fire Chief Thomas Solberg said given the circumstances, it’s unusual nobody has contacted him.
“If they’re talking July 1, that’s not a lot of time to talk about both the fire and the EMS response,” he said.
Last year, Casper Fire-EMS responded to five calls in Mills, according to the department’s records. Solberg said the Mills department usually doesn’t need Casper’s help, so they rarely step in. Without the Mills department, Solberg said it’s likely Casper would have to start picking up those calls.
Casper’s department is already running close to capacity, Solberg said.
“It would be a logistics issue and spill into the financial side as well,” he said, adding it would not be sustainable for the area’s fire departments to provide emergency aid in Mills without having some kind of concrete plan.
Every first responder the Star-Tribune spoke with said emergency response times across the county are almost certain to increase, though Coleman has said, both in public meetings and in interviews with the Star-Tribune, that town officials will ensure response times do not increase.
Representatives from fire departments in the area said they don’t see how response times won’t increase.
“No way, no way,” Natrona County Fire Service spokesman Matt Gacke said when asked if Mills would be able to maintain current response times. “Not if they don’t have a department.”
Gacke anticipates the county fire service filling much of the void if Mills isn’t answering calls.
“It’s going to raise our call volume tremendously,” he said.
That in turn will put more wear and tear on their engines and equipment and could result in the county not having enough staff to meet the increased demand.
Evansville Fire-EMS Captain Corey Ramsey said it would take the Evansville department between seven and 10 minutes to respond to most calls in Mills, and those extra minutes could spell tragedy.
“Anything over 10 minutes would be detrimental” for fire response, Ramsey said. The consequences could be severe for emergency medical response too, depending on what the medical emergency is, he said.
Right now, Evansville Fire-EMS rarely takes calls in Mills, Ramsey said, but he anticipates that changing if the Mills department is cut.
Ramsey said he’s particularly concerned with how emergency medical response will be affected.
Mills Fire Department provides one-third of Natrona County’s ambulance service. The other two services are Evansville, which has three ambulances and staffs two full-time, and Wyoming Medical Center, which has 10 ambulances and staffs three full-time.
The county fire service, which will likely be first to respond to medical emergencies in Mills with no Mills Fire Department, does not have any ambulances. Gacke said all of the county’s firefighters are certified paramedics and they have the capability to provide emergency care, but if they need to transport a patient to a hospital they have to wait for an ambulance to arrive.
“That’s one reason Mills backs up the county on calls,” former Mills firefighter Jared Kelly said.
The county fire service also works with Mills on most fire calls, because structure fires require that at least two engines are on the scene, Kelly said.
“The county fire department is going to have to wait even longer for that second engine to arrive or for EMS calls,” he said.
Katherine White, a registered nurse at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute, often makes calls to WMC for her patients. She said it’s not uncommon for the ambulances to get tied up on other calls because of their significant call volume.
“(WMC ambulances) always come, but it’s just a matter of when,” she said.
Since July 1, 2018, WMC has responded to 9,454 calls, according to WMC spokesperson Kristy Bleizeffer. Of those calls, 454 were for medical emergencies in Mills.
Bleizeffer wrote in an email that losing the Mills Fire Department would put a strain on ambulance responses across the county. But, she said, WMC would still be able to provide adequate emergency services.
Mills resident Kim Perez is worried about how the lack of a fire department will affect her insurance rates. She said her insurance provider told her that her homeowners insurance could triple with no fire department in the town.
“There’s no doubt it will go up,” she said.
Perez’s whole family lives in Mills. Her mother has lived in the town all of her life, and her children recently bought homes in Mills too.
“I’m freaking out here,” she said.
Mike Erickson, an insurance agent at the Sandy Widner Farmers Insurance Agency in Casper, said Perez is right.
“If they get rid of that fire station, it’s going to cost more in homeowners insurance,” Erickson said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Insurance companies determine homeowners insurance rates using protection classes. Properties are assigned protection classes using a number of criteria, proximity to emergency response being a significant factor. The ratings are on a scale from 1-10, 1 meaning you’re the most protected.
Erickson said if the Mills Fire Department is shut down, people’s protection classes could dramatically change.
“Every time you talk about jumping a protection class, even from 1 to 2, you’re talking about a couple hundred dollars,” he said.
He couldn’t predict how much people’s protection classes would change, though he said some of his more rural clients are rated at 10. He said it was feasible that some of Mills’ rural residents could have the same happen to them.
He pulled one property as an example. The property’s protection class changed from 1 to 8, and their insurance went up $1,000 annually.
He said he expects a lot of his clients to see similar changes.
Mills residents asked Coleman at the last Town Council meeting if the decision regarding the department was final.
When asked by the Star-Tribune, Coleman said via email, “While time is rapidly advancing in this matter, it is never the case that a legislative body in a matter like this, if it is doing its job, will not consider new evidence and new options as they are presented to it and, if that information merits it, reconsider its prior actions.”
The next Town Council meeting is 7 p.m. May 22, and residents have said they plan to continue to lobby for the department at that meeting.
Follow city reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites.
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