In the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, dirt roads overgrown with piñon and other pine trees splinter off Old Santa Fe Trail toward isolated homes marked by smoking chimneys.
For some casual observers, such scenes may be a quintessential New Mexico.
For volunteer firefighters, the narrow, one-way roads are more worrisome than serene.
“A few years back, we had this garage fire. The driveway was maybe a fifth of a mile long, tucked into the side of a hill and overhanging with pine trees,” said Terry Protheroe, chief of the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department. “We were able to stop the fire from spreading to the surrounding trees, but we didn’t have enough water to save the garage. That’s when we started thinking about what else we can do.”
That day, Protheroe said, he responded to the fire in La Barbaria Canyon in a Ford F-550 brush truck that held 300 gallons of water. To respond to calls for fire, medical and all other kinds of emergencies off the beaten path, the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department recently acquired a custom-built fire engine to function as a hybrid between a pickup and a full-size fire truck.
The new engine is designed to manage steep slopes and tight turns while carrying 500 gallons of water.
“The brush truck can get everywhere but can’t carry much equipment or people power. The classic fire engine holds all the water, tools and people but can’t get up any of these dirt roads,” Protheroe said. “The new engine can get up a hill and make all the turns. It’s going to be really, really useful on some of our more difficult calls.”
According to Santa Fe County officials, the new engine, which was custom designed by rescue vehicle manufacturer E-One, cost $460,000. Protheroe said the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department, which is located off Interstate 25 near Seton Village and is one of 14 volunteer fire districts in Santa Fe County, has 22 volunteer firefighters who train twice a week to work water pumps and act as first responders in a variety of situations.
Protheroe said the department received 49 calls in October and averages over 500 a year. Around 65 percent are for medical emergencies. As winter approaches, Protheroe said he’s worried about old chimneys setting roofs ablaze.
The Hondo Volunteer Fire Department will show off its new engine from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission Church in the La Cañada de los Alamos neighborhood.
“The beauty of this place is village after village [is] connected by small dirt road after small dirt road, and it’s all magnificent until there’s a fire,” said Anita Tapley, who lives near La Cañada de los Alamos and is also caretaker of an 11,000-acre property in the area. “In light of what’s been happening in California, it’s not a matter of if a wildfire is coming here but when. That’s why this new engine is really important for our community.”
While the Hondo Volunteer Fire Department has tested its new engine up a few hills, it’s still awaiting its first call to action.
“People like to live among the trees,” Protheroe said. “It makes it harder for us to reach them, but this will help.”