BELEN — It was an afternoon of telling old stories at the new fire station last Saturday, as the Belen Fire Department celebrated its 100th anniversary.
In researching for the celebration, Fire Chief Nathan Godfrey said two city ordinances were found — Ordinance 28, passed in 1921 establishing the appointment process of a fire chief and Ordinance 30, which adopted the uniform fire code. The one in between is thought to have established the department, on June 3, 1921.
Godfrey remembers being a junior firefighter at 14 and spending most of his free time at the fire station, sitting on the floor polishing the chrome hubcaps on the trucks.
“It kept me out of trouble,” Godfrey said with a laugh.
Retired fire chief Wayne Gallegos, who was a junior firefighter in the 1970s under former chief and current City Councilor Frank Ortega, said he has many memories and stories from when he was an active member of the department.
“The calls that get remembered, that make the papers, are the saves, the good ones, but that’s a handful,” Gallegos said. “The ones we remember, hold in our hearts, are all the others — the ones you couldn’t do anything for.”
He pointed to the firefighters gathered at the station, saying people needed to remember they were there because they wanted to be.
“No one is making them be here,” he said. “It’s been a 100 years and we’ve come a long way and there’s still a long way to go.”
Ortega joined the department in 1973 right after leaving the Marine Corps.
“As proud as I am to be a Marine, I was more proud to be chief,” Ortega said. “To me, this is a family. The department will always be a part of my heart. It’s where I lived for a long time.”
The first Hispanic female fire chief in Valencia County and first female chief for Belen, Lenore Pena said her appointment was a bit of a controversy, not because she was a woman but because she was tasked with “cleaning up” the finances of the department.
“There were these different cliques wanting to be in control of things, of the money,” Pena said. “Everybody lent a hand and asked me what I needed. That’s why I’m still involved and help; because so many people helped me.”
While there were several former Belen fire chiefs on hand to celebrate the department’s centennial, even more came before them.
W.F. LeBrun was named the first fire chief in 1921, back when Belen was still a village. His tenure was short, with Roy Buckland becoming chief in 1922.
Buckland joined the department in 1909, and was recognized for 50 years of service, 1909-1959, in the spring of 1960.
Jake Griener and Paul Ray took charge during the 1970s, and in the 1980s, Danny Gabaldon was appointed chief. He also served as the city’s police chief at the same time.
Ortega was chief from 1982 to 1993, then there was his brother, Leroy Ortega, Ben Barnes and Pena.
She was followed by Carlos Garcia, who, according to Gallegos only lasted a few days due to his inability to work with Belen’s very small budget
In 1998, then Belen Mayor Ronnie Torres asked Gallegos if he would serve as interim chief while the city searched for a new chief. Nine years later, Gallegos finally hung up his bunker gear.
Manny Garcia picked up the No. 801 helmet in 2007, then passed it on to Godfrey, who served as interim chief until the city hired Bret Ruff in February 2019.
When Ruff resigned from the position in May, Godfrey was selected for the position and has said he will serve until the end of the calendar year.
The department has gone from an entirely volunteer roster to having a career/volunteer staff, from sleeping on mattresses on the floor and running EMT rescue calls in a lime green truck that used to do vector control for the city to a $4 million, state-of-the-art station complete with bunks and an exercise room.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.