Although the Veguita Fire Department has been functioning on limited funding from the state for the past month, the fire chief and the state fire marshal are optimistic the department will get its funding back.

A crowd of about 75 people filtered into the Veguita Fire Department Tuesday night to hear why the state fire marshal suspended funding to the volunteer fire department. The community meeting was set up by State Fire Marshal George Chavez to hear what is really going on with the department.

Members of the community were noticeably worried before the meeting that the fire marshal was going to close down the department. Concerns mounted after a letter was sent to the Socorro County manager by Chavez in regards to the department’s future.

In the letter, Chavez expressed his concern regarding the abilities of both the Veguita and La Joya fire departments to function.

Based on audits conducted last year, the inspector for the fire marshal’s office, Ralph Davis, advised Veguita Fire Chief Tony Ortega and La Joya Fire Chief Earl Barela that corrective actions were needed in both departments. The fire marshal’s office says that advice was ignored by both fire chiefs.

Chavez explained to the community that his main concerns were that he had not received monthly fire reports from the fire department and that the department had ignored attempts to meet with the fire marshal’s office for the past two years.

“I never said I was going to close the department or fire the chief,” Chavez said. “To the county, I have pledged that, as a last resort, after we’ve exhausted every possible way of keeping the fire department open, would we ever resort to closing the fire district. This is a decision I wouldn’t make lightly.

“I don’t like to close fire departments, although I have. It’s very difficult on the community, and I don’t want to leave the people without fire protection,” Chavez said.

Chavez said he would be willing to restore the department’s funding only if the chief would turn in the department’s reports, file a plan of action and try to form a line of communication with his office. Until this is accomplished, the fire department will only get funding for essentials such as gas and utilities.

Ortega told Chavez during the meeting that he did meet with Davis in November and that he has sent in his monthly reports.

“We met with Mr. Davis– me and my assistant fire chief, Paul Baca — in November,” Ortega said. “He did give us paperwork, but didn’t say to send that kind of paperwork (maintenance and training reports) to Santa Fe. He just said to turn in the monthly reports to Santa Fe.”

Chavez told Ortega and the community that all the state requires of a department is for it to send in the run reports. Chavez said his data bank showed that Veguita hasn’t sent in the run reports.

The fire marshal also told the community that the fire department should have a plan of action that includes ways to improve its Insurance Service Office (ISO) rating. Although the fire marshal’s office doesn’t determine a department’s ISO classification, Chavez said the way the department functions reflects on the rating.

During the two-hour meeting, Ortega’s daughter, Cindy, told the fire marshal and those gathered that the department is concerned about the community and the future of the department. She said her father and other volunteers have responded to calls and have been awarded letters of accomplishment.

Chavez was also handed the department’s run reports and their plan of action to state officials during the meeting. Ortega’s daughter told the fire marshal that her father will revise the plan of action to the state’s specifications.

Valencia County Fire Marshal John Cherry suggested it would be helpful if the district appointed a board of directors within the department. He also suggested that the fire chiefs from Veguita, La Joya and Abeytas attend the Valencia County Chiefs Council meetings as a way to bounce ideas off each other.

“Valencia County does dispatch Veguita, La Joya and Abeytas through our 911 system. We do provide emergency medical services to northern Socorro County,” he said. “We’ll continue to help in any way, shape or form.”

After the meeting, Chavez said that, although the Veguita Fire Department hasn’t done what he expects it to do, he believes it has a good chance of immediate improvement.

“I can probably react to the funding issue by next week,” Chavez said. “We already know that the plan (of action) is deficient by the admission of the department. Preparing the recommendations that we’re going to plug into that and getting them back and having them react to that — it could be done within two weeks.”

Chavez said that, once he gets a commitment from the county and the department to the plan of action, he will free up the department’s funds.

Ortega said he also feels better about the department, the community and the state fire marshal after the meeting.

“I’m real proud of all the community that came tonight,” Ortega said. “I think this will help us make a lot of changes. I think we’ll get some volunteers now.”

Ortega said it’s been a little difficult this past month, without funding, to buy new equipment. He said he still needs to replace fire hoses the department needs to fight fires.

“I think we can work this all out,” Ortega said. “I think the communication, on both parts, needs to improve.”

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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.