By Bill Volk
Firefighting is not easy in Jerome, Arizona. The streets were plotted in the 1880s before motor vehicles were invented. Traffic in the old days was on foot, by mule, or by horse. All the streets have remained the same-very narrow and steep.
Today it is very difficult to maneuver an emergency vehicle through town. Parts of State Highway 89A in town have lanes as narrow as seven feet, two inches. The residential side streets are much tighter and are one-way, and many intersections have mirrors to help navigate cross traffic. Many houses are so close together that you can put your hand through the window and touch your neighbor’s house.
The Jerome (AZ) Volunteer Fire Department has gone back to what its forefathers started in 1899-using hose storage sheds strategically placed around town. By preplacing fire hose, nozzles, and equipment, firefighting is a little easier. Hose size and equipment vary as needed in the neighborhood. Some sheds have hose reels and other have hose packs.
Shown here is a hose shed before and after Jerome (AZ) Fire Department
In 1876, American pioneers discovered gold and copper on the steep hillsides of Mingus Mountain in the wild, untamed reaches of the Arizona territory. Settlers immediately registered claims followed by establishing a rough and tumble mining camp. In the 1920s, Jerome was the fourth largest city in Arizona. It sits on a 30-degree slope and is surrounded by the Prescott National Forest. The elevation difference in Jerome is extreme-between 4,500 feet and 5,600 feet in an area encompassing three square miles.
As was the case in many early mining camps, there was no long-term planning. The only plan was to get the ore out of the mountain and to market. Men dreamed of riches and gave little thought to anything else. As a result, only the most temporary of structures were built at the camp. This situation created extremely dangerous fire conditions. And fire, given half a chance, will exploit those conditions. Inevitably, a series of fires devastated the mining camps in Jerome’s early years.
Four fires in the 1890s were sufficiently destructive to be placed in the category of disasters. Jerome’s conflagrations occurred in rapid succession. Many conditions existed at the time that contributed to Jerome’s ability to burn so easily: pine buildings, some covered in canvas; structures packed closely together on a steep hillside; and the use of kerosene lamps and wood burning stoves with clay and wood chimneys. Other factors that contributed greatly to the fires were quoted in the local paper as wind, lack of adequate water supply, and alcohol consumption among the populace.
This formula for disaster produced a series of destructive fires. After each burn, citizens lived in tents while reconstructing their structures, only to have them burn again.
The streets of Jerome, Arizona, were plotted in 1880s before
Bill Adams, editor of the Jerome Mining News, remarked that he might as well have left the “Jerome Burns Again” type set up for the next big conflagration,
During the 1890s, the town was devastated by one conflagration after another:
- April 24, 1894: Two blocks in the commercial district burned down.
- December 24, 1897: Fire destroyed the business district and many homes.
- September 17, 1898: The business district and many homes burned.
- May 8, 1899: 24 saloons, 15 restaurants, and many homes burned.
After the 1899 fire that consumed buildings freshly rebuilt from the last two fires, the burnt-out mining camp organized and decided that to protect itself from further conflagrations, it must incorporate as a legally recognized town.
The Yavapai County Board of Supervisors granted incorporation in 1899. The new town council acted promptly to correct the lack of an adequate water supply and firefighting equipment. Incorporation allowed the citizens to collect taxes to raise the money to erect water tanks, install water mains, construct a fire station, outline a fire district, and adopt one of the first building codes designed to lessen the occurrence of fire. The new code did not go very far. Its main provision was to compel the construction of stone or brick fireplaces and chimneys and prohibit tents. Fortunately, it did allow for the creation of the Jerome (AZ) Volunteer Fire Department. The town established hose sheds throughout town near fire hydrants. Some of the sheds housed hose carts while others stored hose on reels.
In the early days of Jerome, workers delivered water by mule teams from the several springs 2,000 feet above town on Mingus Mountain. A system of pipes connecting the springs was established and delivered the water to the tanks 450 feet above town. However, Jerome was still susceptible to fire in the following:
1902: Four homes on the hogback.
1907: Eight homes in the foreign quarter.
1911: Four homes and the TF Miller warehouse.
1915: The famous Montana Hotel.
1917: An entire residential block, displacing 90 families.
1918: 60 homes in the gulch area.
1926: The Jerome Hotel and 26 homes.
During the years that followed, the fire department continued to develop by acquiring new members and equipment. The town itself went through cycles of boom and bust. At the beginning of the Depression, the mines closed down, and many people had to move to other parts of the state and country to find work. In 1934, Phelps Dodge took over and began extensive blasting less than a half mile from Jerome’s commercial district. This blasting, sometimes using as much as 225,000 pounds of dynamite at one time, shook the town down to its foundation week after week. Eventually, one whole block of Main Street on the downhill side slid so far down the hill that all the buildings had to be dismantled. These structures included a J.C. Penny, a movie theater, a drug store, a billiard parlor, a general store, and a barber shop. No more structures have been built in the slide area to this day.
During World War II, there was a brief boom in copper prices, and the town prospered briefly. But when the war ended, copper prices collapsed, and it was no longer feasible for mining to continue. The mining companies ceased operations in 1952.
|This hose shed is on the list of those remaining to be refurbished. They are being rebuilt and refilled with hose, nozzles, and appliances. Some sheds have hose reels and other have hose packs.|
It was at this point that Jerome became one of the most famous ghost towns of the American West, going from a population of 15,000 in the 1920s to only a few people who were still calling Jerome home in the mid 1950s. This ghostly condition lasted through the 1950s and 1960s. During this period, the fire department fell into disrepair because of a lack of active members. Fortunately during this period, the town must have been under a certain state of grace, because no devastating fires threatened it as in the past. In the late 1960s, the town was discovered by members of what was then called “the Counter Culture.” Young people moved to Jerome from all parts of the country, bought houses for next to nothing, opened shops, started businesses, and started to restore the town.
In the early 1970s, a group of these young people joined the fire department and started working to bring it into the modern age. Slowly but surely, the department acquired newer equipment. It brought training into the modern age, and members initiated a fire prevention program. Recruitment swelled the ranks, and by the early 1980s, Jerome once again had a fire department that could deal with emergencies in an efficient and professional manner. And, like the majority of fire departments around the country, it was a volunteer organization.
In 2013, the old historic hose sheds were still in place around town but were in terrible condition. In January 2014, the department began rebuilding them and refilling them with hose, nozzles, and appliances with town council permission. Training on hose deployment has taken place with fire department members and the local residents. The water pressure is extreme, requiring pressure-reducing stations to decrease the water pressure to safe levels. The water pressure allows 125 gallons per minute (gpm) at 100-pound-per-square-inch (psi) nozzle pressure with 200 feet of 1½-inch hoselines.
The water main system consists of eight-inch pipes and produces very high gpm. Most fire hydrants in Jerome are green-coded for more than 1,000 gpm. There are several blue-coded fire hydrants for greater than 1,500 gpm, and the town has added a copper color code for hydrants supplying more than 1,800 gpm. The last wooden water main was replaced in 1939.
The department’s strategy is to get firefighters in full personal protective equipment with SCBA into the difficult parts of town by staging engines a block or two away from the hose sheds and having them hike in and start hose deployment, rescue, and fire attack. Later-arriving personnel bring in additional tools and equipment and position engines in a defensive position for structure protection.
BILL VOLK is a 41-year veteran of the fire service and the assistant chief of the Jerome (AZ) Fire Department. Volk started at the Yuma (AZ) Fire Department in 1973 and worked until 1999, then became chief of the Blue Ridge (AZ) Fire Department and then captain of the Clarkdale (AZ) Fire Department. He is also an associate with the San Luis Fire Department in Sonora, Mexico.
Jerome (AZ) Fire Department Fleet
Over the years, Jerome has acquired engines with short wheelbases, short front swing, power steering, and short angles of departure. Also, the department runs a Polaris ATV to deploy firefighters and equipment. Its current emergency vehicle inventory consists of the following:
Brush 121: 2008 Frontier Ford F-450 with 100-gpm CAFS