La Joya

The La Joya Volunteer Fire Department’s possible closing is still unsettled after a public meeting ended abruptly Wednesday when an argument between La Joya residents ensued.

The meeting was attended by Socorro County Commissioners Danny Monnette, Laurel Armijo and Dennis Harris, along with County Manager Jody McSmith.

It centered around state Fire Marshal George Chavez explaining to the community the process leading up to the meeting and what needs to happen for the fire department to stay in operation.

Chavez said the La Joya Volunteer Department, along with the Veguita Volunteer Fire Department, failed to meet the April 30 deadline for funding requests.

He said the state fire marshal’s office got curious as to why the two departments were late, researched the issue and discovered they were rated low according to the Insurance Services Office — Veguita was rated ISO-9 and La Joya ISO-10.

ISO reports on its website that it is “the property-casualty insurance industry’s leading supplier of statistical, actuarial, underwriting and claims data.”

Ralph Davis, an ISO auditor for the SFM’s office, said homeowners’ insurance rates are dependent on ISO ratings given to a community’s fire department. He said ISO sells information on risk, including fire protection capability.

“If you can get insurance in a class 10, you are paying the highest insurance,” Davis said. “(We) want to provide cheap insurance in a poor state.”

Davis said cutting a rating of 10 to nine could mean a 20 percent reduction in insurance costs, while reduction of 9 to 8 could mean another 20 to 25 percent decrease.

Chavez said the LJVFD has been an ISO-10 for the term of its existence.

He said the government-mandated law that regulates funding states that funding of an ISO-10 department is allowed to take place for a maximum of three years, the third year only being granted by appeal.

“Ten is unacceptable,” Chavez said. “My biggest concern is that we have these fire departments that aren’t complying with the regulations of law.

“As long as you apply and keep getting funding, you have to show improvement,” he said.

Chavez said he tried to schedule meetings with the La Joya Fire Department to explain what changes were needed to take place for them to lower their ISO rating.

He said that, with that information, the department could file a long-term plan as to how they would improve the department, adding that the SFM’s office hasn’t yet seen that plan.

“We were unsuccessful in having those meetings,” he said. “The funding I provide is meant to do one thing: To protect residential structures within that department.”

Members of the community, along with the volunteer firefighters, questioned the difference between structure and wildland fires, arguing that a wildfire could potentially impact a structure.

La Joya Fire Chief Earl Barela said that, on many occasions, his fire department has put out fires in both La Joya and Veguita that would have burned buildings if they hadn’t been doused.

Chavez said the money given to fire departments throughout the state is meant to put out only structure fires, however, the state does understand that sometimes it should be used to do other things. “Brush fires don’t pay insurance,” he said.

The La Joya department is supposed to show the state fire marshal that it has adequate equipment, training and preparedness to fight structure fires — something it hasn’t done, Chavez said.

Moreover, he said, “if a fire department is capable of delivering a structure fire, then they’re capable of delivering a wildland fire.”

Members of the La Joya community said they would like to see the issue resolved, as they would like to keep their fire department.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that this community wants to keep the fire department,” Jon Carangelo, a La Joya resident said. “If it’s a matter of recording, we’ll start keeping records tomorrow.”

The community is “solidly” behind keeping a fire department, Carangelo said.

“The community wants to know what we can do to make it a better fire department in the future. We have heard of a problem, and we want to fix it,” he said, yielding a positive reaction from community members at the meeting.

However, at that point, the meeting became heated as Chavez and Barela exchanged harsh words. “They’d rather fight a fire with paper,” Barela said.

But Chavez countered: “That’s a cop-out — there hasn’t been a single report submitted to my office.”

Following this exchange, an argument between members of the community ensued about the management of the fire department, ending the meeting without resolve.

McSmith said the future of the La Joya department “depends on what the fire marshal decides.”

“We can’t leave these people without fire protection,” she added.

While Chavez was unable to be reached for comment, Davis said he is confident the fire marshal can resolve the problem, as long is everyone backs off.

Barela said he has been trying to settle the matter since March and that he has filed with the fire marshal’s office the documents requested.

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Mark Hall