John Cammack, 1942-2017Volunteer firefighter ‘pillar to our community’

John Cammack

Funeral services are scheduled Tuesday at the Nara Visa Cemetery for a 74-year-old volunteer firefighter who died from burn injuries suffered while battling a brush fire near his rural community, which is mourning him as a generous and civic-minded pillar of the small town just west of the Texas border.

Gov. Susana Martinez has ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of John Cammack, and the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Md., is making a plaque in his honor.

Survivors of the June 21 fatal incident said it was 106 degrees when lightning cracked from a dark sky and ignited high sage brush. By evening, Nara Visa was surrounded by wildfire.

Cammack, a volunteer firefighter for 30 years, jumped on a water tanker that day with Nara Visa Fire Chief Gary Girard. As they pulled up a half-mile from the fire line and began to hook up the hoses, the winds turned.

Cammack and another firefighter, Kyle Perez, hopped on the back of an engine, intending to speed away from the flames. But the fire climbed 8 feet high in seconds and engulfed the trucks, burning over them with a furious roar.

Cammack, who had fought hundreds of grass fires before, was knocked from the engine.

His brother, Jay Cammack, 69, said he was heading out to fight the fire when he got a call from Perez.

“He said, ‘Go get my good pickup’ and said ‘come get John. He’s hurt bad,’ ” Cammack recalled. “I went and found him … and John said, ‘I am going to be alright, but could sure use a pain pill.’ ”

A medical helicopter air-lifted John Cammack to the University Medical Center’s Timothy J. Harnar Burn Center in Lubbock, Texas. Perez also was treated for severe burns.

The fire would consume 10,000 acres by 4:30 the next morning.

John Cammack died just after noon on June 22, from third-degree burns that covered more than 60 percent of his body.

Cammack was born in Tucumcari in 1942, the second of three sons of Addison and Kathy Cammack. Raised on the family’s cattle ranch near Nara Visa, he learned how to cowboy at an early age. By high school, he had racked up a number of trophies and medals for riding horses and bulls bareback. He went on to join the rodeo team at New Mexico State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree, even riding professionally for a time. He got a master’s degree from Texas A&M University and a doctorate from Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

He worked as a veterinarian in Colorado, helping to pioneer a program to test if race horses and dogs had been administered performance-enhancing drugs. When his father died in 1985, John moved back to Nara Visa and bought the family ranch.

“That’s what he always really wanted,” Jay Cammack said, “Was to have his own ranch.”

In a town of less than 100 people, with little more than a post office, Cammack volunteered for the Nara Visa Fire Department, worked with the Nara Visa Community Center and the cemetery association — in addition to single-handedly mining the cattle and duties of his ranch.

He never married or had a family of his own, and friends and family described him as a modest and private person who was always more interested in helping others than himself.

Girard, the fire chief, said, “He was a pillar to our community.”

When the Department of Energy pitched a plan to drill a three-mile deep borehole in Nara Visa, a project that many feared would bring nuclear waste storage, John Cammack was the first to oppose it. Contractors asked if they could drill the hole on his land, but he declined.

“I didn’t want to do anything that would be harmful to my heirs, my neighbors, our water, or our animals,” John Cammack told The New Mexican in March.

“It would take hours to tell you what a good man John was,” said Nara Visa resident Jimmy Valentine, 45.

A few years ago, Valentine’s land experienced a unique period of drought, with rain hitting the fields everywhere but his. “I remember praying and praying and praying,” Valentine said. Then Cammack stopped him on the side of the road. “He said ‘I got my share and yours of rain,’ ” and offered Valentine a grassy pasture for his starving cattle.

“Even in the fire, they say after John got burned, he was asking everyone else how they were, wasn’t even concerned with himself,” Valentine said. “It just absolutely breaks my heart the way that we lost him.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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