Commission honors retiring fire chief

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Retiring Veguita Fire Chief Tony Ortega was honored at the Tuesday, Feb. 11, County Commission meeting. In giving him an inscribed plaque, Commission Chair Danny Monette said that for over 35 years, Ortega has been a valuable asset to the public safety of Veguita and northern Socorro County.

“I’m glad to get this honor while I’m still alive,” Ortega said.

John Larson — El Defensor Chieftain: Tony Ortega receives a plaque of appreciation for his 35 years as Chief of the Veguita Fire Department at the Feb. 11 meeting of the Socorro County Commission. Pictured from left, Pauline Jaramillo, Ortega, Philip Anaya and Danny Monette.

Looking over his tenure as chief in Veguita, Ortega said times have changed in the last 35 years, and he recalled the first fire he helped put out.

“We had a 1952 pickup, we had 250 gallons and we had leaks all over the place. The first fire was just a brush fire, but at that time, we didn’t have the equipment we do now,” he said. “I started as a firefighter in 1972 when the fire department started getting built. It didn’t get officially established until 1974.”

By 1983 he was fire chief of the volunteer fire department, a position Ortega said required more than just putting out fires.

“You have to educate the public, especially when they want to do a burn,” he said. “I tell people they need to burn fields in October when it’s not windy, but some wait until February or March when there’s a wind so they can burn fast. But the weeds are still standing up because it just burns the top of it.”

Ortega said it took about 15 years before the public would call him.

“Now, they call before they burn weeds; that way, we know where a fire is.”

Although volunteer firefighters receive the same training, and face the same dangers and challenges as regular firefighters, they do not get a salary. And the job is 24/7.

“As a firefighter and fire chief, you have to be the one who is responsible, day or night,” he said. “I would go to bed and tell my wife, I hope that we don’t get the call. When a call comes in, no matter what time and a lot of times it’s at 3 o’clock in the morning, you have to take charge.”

He said when they respond to a structure fire, the chief needs to see what the situation is, whether there’s butane or propane in the structure, or even bullets.

“When bullets start shooting you’ve got to be dodging down. It’s not something like a train derailment, where you can ask what’s in the railroad cars,” Ortega said. “With a structure fire, we don’t know what kind of chemicals are in there.”

He said there have been times when a resident left something burning inside and likely went on an errand, “and before you know it, your neighbors are calling to report the fire.”

The Veguita Volunteer Fire Department is responsible for the northern part of Socorro County, and even into Torrance, extending from Mountainair to La Joya.

“It’s a big area. The worst area is along Highway 60,” he said. “There’s a lot of trailers up there. You have to be careful with those people. Some of those people are crazy; we’ve got shot at a couple of times.”

He said there were times the firefighting crew could not get through locked gates and the property owner would not allow access.

“We don’t try to get in there. We have to just stand there and let it burn,” Ortega said.

The new chief at the department is Ortega’s son, Thomas, who took over on Jan. 1.

“He was the most qualified. He was seven years old when he first started learning about fighting fires, so he grew up with it. All the firefighters voted him the new chief,” he said.

In other business, the Commission passed a resolution to allow the lowering of the speed limit on unmarked county roads. According to New Mexico statutes, the speed limit on 1,288 miles of county maintained roads is 75 mph. County Attorney Adren Nance said the law applies to all counties in the state.

“Believe it or not, under state law, the speed limit for unposted roads is 75,” he said. “If the county wants to change that, it has to pay for a traffic study, which would entail looking at grades, curves, road surface and other factors.”

Such a study would cost more money than the county would like to spend, said County Manager Delilah Walsh.

To avoid that cost, she said the Commission passed a resolution asking the state legislature to change the law.

“This effort started with the Association of Counties pushing for it. There’s a lot of support for changing the law,” Walsh said.

Nance said although the law is on the books, “if a cop sees you go 75 on a bad road you can get still a ticket for reckless driving.”

The Commission also approved a new policy that would allow a personal mobile home to be parked on county property in exchange for watchman services.

“This creates the policy to let us be able to do this if needed,” Walsh said. “This was something the fire chiefs and other departments were asking about, so the Commission wanted the policy to be in place.”