Houston Mesa Fire District History
The Houston Mesa Fire District was formed in 1977, as the Mesa del Caballo Fire District, and started providing services as the
Mesa del Caballo Fire Department shortly thereafter. The district and department operated under the Mesa del Caballo name
(pronounced MAY suh del cuh BUY oh, and means "plateau of the horse," in Spanish) for many years. The department's initial
service area was the small residential community of Mesa del Caballo, which is an "island" of private lands totally surrounded by
US Forest Service land, part of the Tonto National Forest. In 1994, the district expanded to include another such island of private
lands three miles to the north, which included the communities of Wonder Valley and Freedom Acres. The main road that serves
these areas is called Houston Mesa Road, and most of the district sits atop Houston Mesa, a prominent plateau located just
northeast of the town of Payson, Arizona, so in 2003 the District Board voted to change the name to Houston Mesa, in order to
more accurately describe the district's service area.
The original fire station was an old wooden shed, which was barely large enough to hold the department's first truck, a 1958 B-85 Mack 750 GPM fire engine. The old Mack was purchased from the Highland Firefighters' Association of McCandless Township, a volunteer fire department in the Pittsburg, Pennsylvania area. The department's first Chief, Frank Elms, flew back to look at the truck, made arrangements to purchase it, and drove it all the way back to Arizona.
In 1980, the current fire station building was constructed, with most of the work being done by community volunteers. The 30' X 50' two-bay slump block structure has undergone a number of interior remodels over the years, but it is a solid old building and basically still looks the same as it did when it was new. In accordance with the area-wide mutual aid numbering system in place at the time, the station was known as Fire Station 7, and the old Mack ran as Engine 7.
With no water system or hydrants, a tanker was needed, and with the two-bay building there was room to house it. The first tanker the department purchased was an old International truck with a 4,000 gallon tank that had been operated at a mine. It had been used to haul some type of corrosive liquids, and the truck was pretty rough and beat up. The tank frequently would develop leaks and require welding. Members joked about the "leak-of-the-week," but fire calls didn't happen very often, and the truck was capable of moving water from A to B and served the department for a number of years as Tanker 7.
In 1993, the decision was made to replace Tanker 7, and a 1978 Freightliner cabover semi-tractor was purchased and converted into a fire tanker with a 3,500 gallon tank. This rig ran as Tanker 7 for ten years, and when the area-wide numbering system changed in 1998 it became Water Tender 311, designated as an ICS Type 2 water tender. Like many of these old converted rigs, the Freightliner had a nine-speed stick shift, and only a few folks on the department were ever able to shift it smoothly. It was also a very tall truck, had no power steering, and was difficult to climb in and out of. The truck's height also caused bay door problems, and the truck would "tag" the bottom of the door if it was not completely in the raised position.
By the late '80s, after running the old Mack for over ten years, it became apparent that the truck needed to be replaced. The department looked at used trucks, and in August of 1989 finally settled on a Ford/Howe 1,000 GPM engine that was a former Huntington Beach rig out of southern California. This truck ran as Engine 7 for eight years, but it became apparent just as soon as it was purchased that this truck was worn out as well, and it turned out to be a continual maintenance problem. The crew never really "bonded" with this rig, and many wished that they had the old Mack back.
In 1995, needing more space and not having the necessary funds to add on to the existing building, the decision was made to put up a metal Quonset-hut structure next to the station. Although this gave the department some much-needed bay space and storage space, the building is not very attractive, and is simply impossible to adequately heat during the colder months. It did however provide the deep bay that was needed when the department purchased Engine 311's current rig two years later. It also gave bay space to house Brush 311, a 1986 Chevrolet 4X4 brush truck (ICS Type 6 Engine), an ex-forest service rig that was given to the department on "permanent loan" from the Arizona State Land Department (which is now called the Arizona State Forestry Division). Many Arizona fire departments operate these "State Land" rigs.
In 1997, because of the maintenance problems with the Ford/Howe, the department decided to lease/purchase a brand new truck, and a new International/E-One 1,250 GPM pumper was bought and placed in service. This rig was originally called Engine 7, but when the area-wide numbering system changed a year later, Station 7 became Station 31, and Engine 7 became the current Engine 311. This truck has provided over ten years of faithful service, has been well-maintained, and is still in excellent condition.
In 2003, Water Tender 311's Freightliner was replaced with a 1978 Ford/S & S 3,000 gallon ICS Type 2 water tender that was purchased from another local fire department. Although it was the same year as the Freightliner, the Ford had a conventional cab and an automatic transmission, so it was much easier to drive and operate. The Freightliner was taken out of service as an emergency vehicle and was sold to a construction company, and the Ford ran as Water Tender 311 for five years until the diesel engine failed in mid-2008. This truck too was deemed no longer fit for service as an emergency vehicle, and was sold at a used equipment auction in Phoenix.
In 2004, the department got rid of the last of the "State Land" vehicles, purchasing a used 2001 Dodge 4X4 brush truck (ICS Type 6 engine) from a local wildland fire contractor. This rig initially was called Brush 311, but has been renamed Engine 316 to match national ICS terminology. This is important in the area because local fire department units frequently work on mutual aid incidents with US Forest Service units, and standardization of terminology simply makes things work better.
In February of 2009, the current Water Tender 311 was purchased. It is a used 2006 Freightliner/TWI 2,250 gallon ICS type 3 water tender. It is anticipated that this rig will serve the department's needs for many years.
Many things have changed over the years. When the department formed in 1977, there were only three fire stations in the entire area. Now there are fifteen. The department's first engine, the '58 Mack, was only the fifth engine in the area. Now there are fifteen. When that old ex-mine tanker was purchased, there was only one other fire department tanker in the area, and it was fifteen miles away. Now there are twelve?..three within five miles. The department started out with the old Mack, with it's 500-gallon tank, and a half-dozen volunteers. Under the current Central Dispatch/Automatic Aid system, a First Alarm assignment for a structure fire in the department's area consists of three engines, two water tenders, a light/air utility unit, and two Chief Officers, bringing around 20 firefighters from three different fire departments and 7,500 gallons of water to the scene. Need more? Strike a Second Alarm. What hasn't changed is that most of the firefighters are still volunteers, but are much better equipped, trained, and are more experienced than they used to be.