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Over the past few years, Dry Creek Rancheria Chairman Harvey Hopkins has witnessed a few small fires on the hill by the tribe's River Rock Casino near Geyserville, but they were quickly put out.

"I've watched little fires hit the property — an incident here, an incident there," he said Tuesday.

But when a grass fire last year led to an evacuation of a tribal office, "I said 'that's the end. I'm going to build a fire department.'"

Hopkins spoke Tuesday at the dedication of the tribe's new fire station adjacent to River Rock Casino.

Two shiny, new red fire trucks and a third refurbished one represent part of the hefty investment the tribe has made to create a department. That also includes a garage and a surplus FEMA building that will serve as office and living quarters.

The tribe paid more than $700,000 for two state-of-the-art Pierce pumper trucks, one a large four-wheel-drive vehicle intended to battle wildland fires.

The Pomos also hired Craig Lowe, a former captain of the Santa Rosa Fire Department, as a full-time fire chief. He will oversee the new department of three full-time fire captains and a roster of a dozen firefighters.

"Sonoma County just got a brand new fire department free — no cost to them," Hopkins said, noting that Dry Creek will be part of a mutual aid network to respond to north county fires.

The station will be staffed by two personnel around the clock, consisting of an officer and firefighter.

"They've obviously made tremendous efforts and improvements here," said Randy Collins, a retired Healdsburg Fire Department chief who runs the fire program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Other tribes with casinos in Northern California also created have their own fire departments, including Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation at Cache Creek Casino and United Auburn Indian Community at Thunder Valley.

The Graton Rancheria, which next month is opening its big casino adjacent to Rohnert Park, is paying neighboring fire agencies to offset the cost of handling emergency calls. The tribe also is to pay $3.75 million for a new Rohnert Park fire station and ladder truck.

For the past decade, Dry Creek Rancheria has been subsidizing the nearby Geyserville fire department to handle casino-related calls.

The $336,000 total annual payment has helped Geyserville handle about 100 calls a year at River Rock, typically for medical ailments among casino patrons that rang from asthma attacks to heart attacks.

Having its own fire department will be more expensive for the tribe, with an operational budget estimated at perhaps $500,000 to $600,000 annually, Hopkins said.

But he said it will allow for consistent, fast response times to the casino.

Geyserville firefighters a year ago began staffing a temporary fire station on the tribal land. But that ended last month as the tribe stopped payments to Geyserville and began preparing to run its own department.

The tribe's payment to Geyserville represented roughly one-third of the department's $1 million annual budget. "We knew it was coming. It's not like it was a complete surprise," Geyserville Fire Chief Marshall Turbeville said Tuesday.

He said Geyserville will have to cut back from five full-time firefighters this year to three and reduce the number of part-timers.

But he said the department is negotiating with the tribe in an effort to obtain money for 2014.

"We're optimistic. We had a good working relationship and will work something out," he said. "They've always been very generous to us."

Dry Creek's "goal and our goal is work together," Turbeville said.

The Dry Creek department will provide opportunities for firefighter trainees to gain experience, as well as tribal members who want to pursue a career.

"One of the expectations is to create a career path and opportunity for any tribal members to get experience for fire service and training," said Chief Lowe.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.