“I’m constantly worried about the town, about the residents here,” Marcum said. “... Being the fire chief, my first priority is the safety of the town.”
Last month, a power line fell on federal land just west of Thompson Springs, igniting 141 acres just a mile from town.
Marcum said the response time for emergency backup to Thompson Springs — located 38 miles from Moab — sometimes means he is on the scene alone in tough situations, as was the case in the wildland fire.
Until crews from the Moab Valley Fire Protection District, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Utah Department of Natural Resources arrived roughly 30 to 40 minutes into the blaze, Marcum was the only trained firefighter on the scene.
“I’m just one person — what can I do? I immediately called for the Moab Fire Department,” Marcum said.
Marcum works in Moab four days a week as operations supervisor for Grand County Emergency Medical Services (EMS). He watches the weather fervently, switching shifts on days he thinks the town might be more at risk.
Marcum said Thompson Springs has faced 26 emergency incidents so far this year, a number that creeps close to 2016’s total of 35 incidents. Although he says the call volume is not remarkably high, the nature of those calls is quite intense.
“It’s chest pain, difficulty breathing, a 140-acre fire,” he said. “It can give you nightmares.”
And now, it’s up to Marcum to be the county’s sole first responder in the Thompson Springs district, which has a population of about 40 residents but also sees millions of people traveling through on the interstate.
Grand County officials say Marcum has lost volunteers due to their age and lack of interest or time in training, as well as people working full-time elsewhere.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lack of population in that community and the ones that are there aren’t able to work as fire volunteers or they aren’t there very much because they’re going elsewhere to work,” said Grand County Emergency Management Director Rick Bailey.
With just one person working the fire district, Bailey said, “the whole I-70 corridor is an open end for us right now.”
For Grand County Council member Greg Halliday, who also volunteers for the Castle Valley Fire Department, the situation in Thompson Springs is cause for great concern.
“There’s the potential that we could lose the town,” Halliday said. “This last fire burned 141 acres. If the wind hadn’t turned, it would have burned the town down. You’ve got a whole lot of wooden structures that nobody’s taking care of, nobody’s weeding.”
Marcum said Thompson Springs has great neighbors who will respond to emergencies like fire, but added that it simply isn’t safe to rely on the kindness of others long-term — especially when such situations require professional training.
“We have some great people in town, who when an incident occurs they’ll show up with their shovels,” Marcum said. “... [But] even a well-trained firefighter is in a dangerous position. So you put people in jeans and T-shirts out there and it’s a dangerous thing.”
After the Grand County Council took over the authority that had been granted to the Thompson Springs Special Service Fire District last month due to the lack of board members and volunteers, Marcum met with Bailey, Halliday, Grand County EMS Director Andy Smith and Moab Valley Fire Chief Phil Mosher to discuss short-term and long-term options.
One short-term solution the group seeks to implement is automatic dispatching, meaning the Moab Valley Fire Department would be paged at the same time as Marcum for fire emergencies in the Thompson Springs district.
“We discussed what we can do for automatic dispatching,” Smith said. “That way, [Marcum] is not waiting on resources.”
Although automatic dispatching might cut down on response times, Moab Valley Fire Chief Phil Mosher said there will still be a lag in getting help to Thompson, an issue he called “inevitable” in the West.
“If you’re out in these outlying areas that are remote, there is going to be a delayed response no matter what kind of services we have,” Mosher said.
For Thompson Springs in the long term, Bailey said, Grand County may need to begin talking about employing emergency professionals.
“A lot is out on the table, but it’s going to take more,” Bailey said. “Hiring some bodies and putting them out there is the ultimate solution. How we’re going to pay for that, I don’t know.”
Just having one more trained person to help would make Marcum’s role in Thompson Springs much more manageable, he said.
“It would be great to have me and one other person who’s a firefighter or an EMT out here on a fairly regular basis,” Marcum said. “... At least with two people you can be a little safer and take a little more action until more folks arrive.”
Grand County Council member Mary McGann suggested the county form a committee to talk about Thompson Springs’ emergency preparedness, as well as other challenges for emergency services throughout the county.
“So many of the calls for Moab Fire are outside their district, so we need to look at ways to manage that too,” McGann said. “We need to look at our emergency preparedness.”
Saying “nothing is easy here,” Halliday warned that the problem will remain and return if not addressed, just like the weather.
“The problem is not going to go away,” he said. “For the foreseeable future it’s not going to get any better until it starts to rain and the fire hazard drops.”
Editor's Note: This version corrects the status of the Thompson Springs Special Service Fire District board. The Grand County Council has assumed authority over the district until further notice but the district still exists.