Arizona Foothills 911 – Changing Lives One Emergency at a Time
Writer Joseph J. Airdo
Photography by Bryan Black and John Fritz
On May 17, a wildfire started off Desert Hills Drive in Cave Creek. Known as the East Desert Fire, the wildfire spread rapidly over the course of just a few hours, threatening several homes and eventually burning nearly 1,500 acres.
Unfortunately, the incident was only the first in a series of wildfires that ravaged North Valley communities this summer as it was quickly followed by the Ocotillo Fire — also in Cave Creek — which burned an additional 980 acres and destroyed 20 buildings, including eight homes. Less than one month later, the Aguila Fire destroyed six structures and burned nearly 900 acres in Desert Hills.
In a year of so much unprecedented misfortune, our wildfire season has only exacerbated the heartache experienced by our communities. However, it has also given our communities an opportunity to rise up and show what truly makes them special.
“I think that right now there is so much bad stuff going on in the world,” says Cave Creek resident Sunny Parker. “We have a huge election going on and people are very opinionated about what they feel. But when you are talking to animal lovers and people who have livestock — like those who make up our North Valley communities — it is a whole different story. Nobody cares about anything other than ensuring that their neighbors are being taken care of.”
Last year, Parker founded Arizona Foothills 911 — an organization that is dedicated to responding to emergency situations in Carefree, Cave Creek, Desert Hills, New River, North Scottsdale and Rio Verde. She and countless other volunteers helped people not only evacuate their homes but also have a safe place to keep their pets and livestock during each of the three wildfires that ravaged our communities this summer.
A Huge Undertaking
“It started with a promise I made,” Parker says. “My son Brian was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and he slipped into a coma minutes after we got to the hospital. They told me that he had zero chance of making it. They said that he would not survive.
“I made a promise to the man upstairs that if He spared my son’s life, I would spend the rest of my life doing something good. Brian is now not only alive and well, but everything is perfect. So I am keeping my promise.”
Shortly after Brian recovered, Parker traveled to California for a horse show with which her daughter was involved. While there, she witnessed the California wildfires first-hand. Noticing that California’s landscape was not too different from our own, she began to worry about potential wildfire danger in our North Valley communities.
“I knew then that it was not a matter of if it was going to happen but a matter of when it was going to happen,” Parker says. “I came back home and realized that there was nothing in the area that covers what could possibly happen. I discussed doing something about it with a few people and while they all said it was a great idea, they thought it was too huge of an undertaking.”
Parker proceeded anyway, creating a Facebook page just to see what would happen. She slowly saw the page’s number of followers increase as she began discussing the significance of wildfire awareness and preparation with people in North Valley communities.
At Images Arizona’s press time, Arizona Foothills 911’s Facebook page had more than 9,000 followers.
A Community in Crisis
Arizona Foothills 911’s first real test occurred when the East Desert Fire started. Parker received permission to use Cave Creek’s Frontier Town as a staging area for the incident as volunteers helped evacuate residents, pets and livestock.
“I just put out a plea on Arizona Foothills 911’s Facebook page and within minutes I had 20 people offering to help with horse trucks and trailers,” Parker says. “We got everybody out that needed to get out and we began to plan a meeting so that we could figure out how to do things better.”
However, before that meeting could take place, the Ocotillo Fire started.
“We did not have the time to do that and it really did not matter,” Parker explains. “What mattered was that we did it. People were counting us to help them figure out not only how to get out themselves but also how to get their animals out and find places for them where they would be safely returned to them. During that particular situation, we got a lot of new volunteers.”
In addition to a career in physician credentialing, Parker had been working at Wal-Mart in Cave Creek so that she could put aside money to register Arizona Foothills 911 as an official nonprofit organization to help secure things that will improve its operations.
“During [the East Desert Fire], I had been up for 40-something hours and I had to go to work the next day,” Parker says. “I did it and I managed to get through it. But when [the Ocotillo Fire] broke out, I realized that I had to give this everything I had or it was not going to work.”
Parker’s supervisor at Wal-Mart graciously granted her a leave of absence, giving her the time to truly help the community through the crisis. She now considers Arizona Foothills 911 to be her full-time job.
“After the overwhelming feeling that I got during the Ocotillo Fire — the hurt and the fear I saw in the people who were counting on me — I knew that I could not possibly give the residents of this area everything I have got If I have commitments to other things,” Parker says. “It became obvious to me that I had to do this 100% of the time.”
Less than one month later, Parker received confirmation that she had made the right decision when the Aguila Fire threatened Desert Hills.
“I was driving, saw the smoke and within 20 minutes we had [Cave Creek’s] rodeo grounds opened as we started moving people,” Parker says. “A lady called me from California and said she needed my help to get her elderly parents out safely. We had veterinarians who came out to help injured horses. We had hundreds of animals there. We had llamas, pigs, goats and sugar gliders — you name the critter and it was there.”
A New Set of Problems
As Arizona’s wildfire season has thankfully come to a close for another year, Parker acknowledges that Arizona Foothills 911’s work is never over. She is now shifting her focus to educating North Valley communities about preparedness procedures and safe practices in emergency situations.
One of the most important lessons that she hopes to bestow upon people is to avoid doing anything that may interfere with emergency personnel being able to quickly and safely do their jobs. For example, as fascinating as wildfires may appear, Parker is begging people not to pull over to the side of the road to take pictures and videos.
“You can really be impeding what the fire department is doing,” she explains. “You can watch the news later. Seconds can literally cost lives. Every second that firefighters are out there is one second too long and if we can get them out of there faster by not being in their way then we need to do that.”
Parker is also focused on the aftermath of this year’s particularly active wildfire season. As much of the vegetation in North Valley communities is gone, the inevitable flooding as a result of this fall and winter’s thunderstorms has become an enormous concern.
“That is going to cause a whole new set of problems, particularly because we do not have any idea which way the water is going to go,” Parker says.
Answering the Call
Of course, wildfires and other natural disasters are only one segment of the emergencies to which Arizona Foothills 911 answers the call.
“When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I received a phone call from a woman whose son had some disabilities,” Parker says. “A cat that was his support animal was left behind in Washington. I flew all the way to Washington and picked up this kid’s cat. It was amazing to me because the airport was like a ghost town and I was the only person on the plane. It was so weird.”
Since founding the organization, Parker has picked up and delivered prescriptions for people who were unable to do so themselves and even facilitated assistance for people whose horse trailers have broken down on the side of the road.
“We are here for any emergency situation that is not the type of emergency that would require a real 911 call,” she explains. “I am hoping at some point to be able to have all of the materials and things that we need to ensure that Arizona Foothills 911 becomes a really strong place where people can come to us and know that no matter what they need we can help them.”
Parker reiterates that she fully intends to honor the promise she made to the man upstairs and do this for the rest of her life. She admits that it is a lot of work but she has never felt more rewarded by a job.
“To be able to do something like this, to change somebody’s life — even in the case of the young man who just needed his cat back — is what makes it all worth it,” Parker says. “We are doing something to change people’s lives for the better. I believe that we as people have got to do the best that we can for each other and try really hard to stay as positive as we can at all times so that we can be better people.
“We all have it in us to be better. You can look around all you want and you are going to see everything negative under the sun. But one person can make a difference. You alone have the ability to change someone’s life for the better — or for the worse, so choose wisely.”
Parker adds that her son’s situation completely changed her as a person and she is eternally grateful for that. However, she acknowledges that she alone does not make up Arizona Foothills 911.
“The credit goes to every single person who volunteers, every single person who is on the phone, every single person who goes out to grab a trailer and pick up a horse,” she explains. “It is this community that makes Arizona Foothills 911 so strong. I could never have done any of this without the support of this incredible community that we live in.”
Parker adds that North Valley neighbors stepped up to the plate in a way that she never even dreamed they would have. She considers the amazing outpouring of support to be the true definition of a community — something that is somewhat unique to the North Valley.
“I think that there is something very special to be said about the type of communities we live in,” Parker explains. “We are just different. I think that we are still considered part of the Old West, so we have that lifestyle of people helping people just because it is the right thing to do.”
Arizona Foothills 911
To request assistance, call 480-204-4443.
To volunteer, e-mail email@example.com.