Velarde Fire Dept. In Danger Of Being Closed

Velarde Volunteer Fire Dept. has five engines and trucks, a modern main and substation and millions of dollars worth of equipment. But they have only two firefighters. Courtesy photo

Velarde Fire Dept. In Danger Of Being Closed

Staff Report

Rio Arriba County officials held a town hall meeting at the Velarde Community Center Tuesday, May 9 to discuss the lack of volunteer firefighters at the Velarde Valley Volunteer Fire Department and the possibility of having to close the fire department.

Rio Arriba County (RAC) Commissioner Barney Trujillo explained to the estimated 40 attendees that unless the department is able to recruit several new firefighters this year, the department will have to be shuttered.

During the meeting, Velarde resident Levi Valdez  (standing to the left of Commissioner Trujillo)  gave a history of the Velarde fire department, which was established in the early 1960s. Courtesy photo

The reason for this possible closure is that federal regulations require that federal funding for volunteer fire departments only be used in communities where the local department has a sufficient score in the ISO/PPC rating system. An ISO survey conducted in Feb. this year found that the Velarde based fire department had slipped far below the requirements.

The ISO survey found that the Velarde department did not have the minimum required number of firefighters responding to the initial alarm to all reported structure fires, and did not have any emergency medical technicians on staff to respond to EMS calls in the district.

The Velarde Valley Volunteer Fire Department covers the communities of Velarde, Lyden, La Canova and areas in-between, with an area population of around 1,000 people, and has a main station in Velarde, and a substation outside of Lyden on County Road 59. Regulations require that a department of this size needs a minimum of 12 volunteer firefighters, with four regularly on-call to answer calls.

The Velarde department falls far short of this number, with only two firefighters currently on the roster, in addition to the chief and assistant chief.

The ISO survey will be reassessed in March next year. If by that time the understaffing is not resolved, the Velarde the fire district PPC rating will be deemed unacceptable, $30,000 in funding will be lost and the county may have to close the department.

Should the Velarde fire department close, local residents and businesses would have to rely on fire departments in other communities, such as Alcalde and Dixon. Property insurance ratings for the area will also change, possibly causing an increase in insurance premiums. One estimate provided to community members showed that homeowner insurance could almost double in price.

Not that many years ago, the Velarde fire department had a surplus of eligible firefighters. But due to the personnel conflicts between the chief and county over the past few years, the majority of former firefighters resigned or were terminated for the manner in which they protested or resigned. The nature of this conflict has made it difficult to recruit firefighters to fill the vacancies.

RAC commissioner Barney Trujillo led the discussion, but several people from the county and state joined him. Also attending was RAC County Manager Tomas Campos, Assistant County Manager David Trujillo, Rio Arriba County Attorney Adan Trujillo, Fire Chief Carlos Esquibel, Deputy Fire Chief Alfredo Montoya, and State Fire Marshal staff members Adam Muller and Randy Varella. PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza was not present but sent a staff member to listen. The PRC oversees the county-run fire departments. County Commissioner Alex Naranjo was also present, but sat with the audience and did not speak.

A few community members who attended were visibly angry over the handling of the personnel issues and complained that former firefighters are not being allowed to rejoin the department.

Eddie Velarde, the current Velarde fire chief sat surrounded by ex-volunteer firefighters who said they have not been allowed to volunteer again due to the county’s policy. According to county officials, applicants cannot have a felony record or have been terminated from a fire department job. Some volunteers who want to rejoin are not eligible because, during the conflicts over the fire chief of the past few years, they informally resigned and were deemed to have walked off the job and were officially terminated by the county.

Several community members who attended the meeting protested this policy and contended that it is only being enforced in Velarde and not in other areas of the county.

Lenore Naranjo, Velarde native and wife of Commissioner Alex Naranjo spoke up towards the end of the meeting calling on the community to “work together and look forward to the future not back”.

County Commissioner Trujillo stated that they were there to find and recruit firefighters and asked for volunteers. Three people raised their hands to volunteer and were sent to a table in the back of the room to sign up for training, but nearly 10 former firefighters were still considered ineligible.