For the first time in the department’s history, the Rio Grande Estates Fire Department in Rio Communities will have a paid fire chief.
With unanimous approval by the Rio Communities City Council last week, Christopher Bortz, currently of South Carolina, will take the helm on Oct. 4.
Bortz, who has more than three decades of experience in fire service, said he’s excited for the opportunity to lead the RGEFD and begin making a difference in the community.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Bortz said of the position in a telephone interview with the News-Bulletin. “One of the reasons I applied (for the position) is because I’ve been in the career field for 31 years, and this would be the pinnacle of my career, taking the top position as fire chief.”
Joshua Ramsell, the mayor pro tem of Rio Communities, is hopeful Bortz, who will be making $60,000 a year, will be the right fit for the department and the community.
“It’s a huge step in the right direction as a city,” Ramsell said. “There is no way to provide the level of service needed to the community without having paid staff of some type, and a paid department head is the best place to start.”
Ramsell said most 911 calls from Rio Communities are for EMS services. With a new chief and two firefighter/EMS that will soon be hired, he’s looking forward to the city being able to offer more help.
“This doesn’t mean the volunteers aren’t wanted or needed because they are,” Ramsell said. “We really appreciate them, but this is the first step in building the program and working toward giving the level of service the community deserves.”
Originally from Idaho, Bortz spent about six years living in Los Lunas while working as a fire management officer and firefighter at Kirtland Air Force Base. He said the opportunity to return to the Land of Enchantment was another reason he applied for the position.
When Bortz lived in Valencia County, Rio Communities had not yet been incorporated as a municipality, but he does remember hearing about the fire department while fighting wildfires near the Manzano Mountains.
“When I came down a few months ago to interview, I was very impressed with the city and the amount of opportunity for the community,” Bortz said.
Knowing he will be the first paid fire chief of the RGEFD, he says while there will be pressure on him, he’s confident he can do the job.
“I get to be the first to create a department and take it to the next level,” he said. “When my tenure is up — hopefully I’ll get another 20 or so years out of it — maybe I can leave a little bit of a legacy that I built from the ground up.”
Bortz says he wants a department that will be responsive to the citizens of Rio Communities and give them the proper emergency care. The new fire chief is also hoping he can bring his expertise in wildland firefighting to the area.
“When I first got to Kirtland Air Force Base, they didn’t have a wildland team, so I started the very first wildland hotshot crew at Kirtland,” he said. “We were quite a big deal back then; they would call us out all over.”
Bortz and his wife, Liza, have four grown children, one of whom has followed is in his father’s footsteps being a firefighter in North Carolina.
“This will be (Liza’s) first time ever in New Mexico, and she’s very excited,” Bortz said. “She’s a little apprehensive, but she’s very excited.”
Bortz does have somewhat of a plan for the department and the community.
“My first-year plan is to observe what is going on in the community so that I can make a plan,” the new chief said. “Anyone can come in and say they are going to make changes, but a lot of times it turns out they can’t.
“I would rather sit back for just a little bit, get the pulse of the community and find out what I can so I can formulate the best plan for the community,” Bortz said. “I want to be able to get to know all the stakeholders and the people, and then formulate a plan.”
Bortz said his ultimate goal was to get the department to the state where it will be a combination of paid-career staff and volunteers. He hopes to be accomplished in the next five years.
“I know it’s a bit of an older community — a lot of retirees,” he said of Rio Communities. “So I think a full-time department is necessary for the residents.”
When Bortz did travel here for the job interview in May, he was able to visit the fire station during an open house.
“They were very hospitable to me; they welcomed me, which was a great feeling,” the new chief said.
Bortz is currently the chief of training and prevention at the McCrady Training Center in Eastover, S.C. He has a college degree in forestry management and fire ecology.
He has worked with the State and Department of Defense as a fire management officer and firefighter at Kirtland Air Force Base from 2001 to 2007, while living in Los Lunas.
He has worked with the United States Forest Service and all areas of the fire service, with his specialty being wildland firefighting management. Bortz has also been in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and Saudi Arabia working for the military or contracting to oil-based industry companies instructing firefighters. He was also a firefighter in the U.S. Air Force for more than four years.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.