The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Helicopter and Tim Nadeau

As part of Fire Safety Week, Placitas Elementary School principal Chris Werenko arranged for students to get a close-up view of the Care Flight helicopter and Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade fire engines. Pilot Randy Johnson, flight nurse Steve Robertson, and paramedic Nico Simporis allowed the children to go inside the helicopter's passenger and crew compartment, where the injured would normally ride. The helicopter arrived after a fire-safety assembly presented by the PVFB. The volunteer crew included Captain Bud Brinkerhoff, Drew Owens, Jerry Malloy, and Tom Hansen.

Placitas Fire Brigade news

On October 11 members of the Placitas Volunteer Fire Brigade made presentations to youth in the Placitas area, kicking off this year's national fire-prevention week. John Wolf, Jerry Melloy, and Bud Brinkerhoff made a presentation to the Mothers Day Out preschoolers at the Placitas Presbyterian Church.

This year's presentation emphasized safety around candles in the home. Eighteen thousand fires were caused by candles in 2001, compared to 12,540 during 1998. The 2001 statistics are the latest available from the National Fire Protection Association, but the number of fires caused by candles is rising every year.

The members then proceeded to the Placitas Elementary School, where a similar presentation was made, complete with the landing of a Care Flight helicopter out of Santa Fe. The schoolchildren were given a demonstration of how firefighters would look and sound (using actual breathing apparatus) in the event they were called in to rescue occupants of a burning structure.

Many children die in structure fires because they hide under their beds or in closets and don't respond to the rescue efforts of firefighters. The demonstrations serve to familiarize small children with what a firefighter will look like when performing a rescue operation. Following the presentation, kids were allowed to view the rescue helicopter, as well as fire-and-rescue apparatus from the local fire department.

In other department news, the Placitas Brigade is in the process of applying for a state grant, which could provide as much as $55,000 towards our effort to provide our area with a new or remodeled rescue unit with four-wheel drive capability. Many residents and community leaders have assisted us in this effort by providing letters of support to include in the grant request.

Also, as we change our clocks, area residents are again urged to check their smoke detectors and change the batteries as needed. Although smoke alarms are present in 95 percent of U.S. homes, 20 percent do not work, due to worn or missing batteries, according to studies conducted for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. This means that nearly nineteen million homes are at needless risk.

The peak time for home fire fatalities is between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m., when most families are sleeping. A working smoke alarm can provide the critical extra seconds people need to get out safely. Protect yourself and your family by taking the time and effort to replace your alarm batteries.

Fire chief foresees big hit for county due to nonpayment of bills for rescue transport

Operation of the new Sandoval County Fire Department is generating its first statistics and first concerns about patients' ability to pay for services.

During July, the SCFD responded to seven fires and 201 rescue calls throughout the county and its pueblos, including three calls within Rio Rancho. Nearly 43 percent of the calls came from Bernalillo, with Placitas second on the list at fifteen calls, 7.2 percent of the total.

Of the rescue calls, 110 resulted in transporting patients, while 91 were listed as cancellations or patient refusals.
“We get on scene and evaluate a patient who doesn't want to go to the hospital or is already gone from the scene,” Chief Jon Tibbetts said, while reporting the numbers to county commissioners. “It's always the patient’s choice.”

Tibbetts said it was too early to know what percentage of $71,000 billed to patients in July will be paid. The department assesses patients a $96 evaluation charge in addition to other fees, he said.

Depending on how aggressive the county wants to be on collections, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of that total might be paid, he said. Most transported patients appear not to have insurance, he added.

“That's a big concern to me,” Tibbetts said. “It's only one month, but we need to watch the trend.”

Added county commissioner Jack Thomas, “I look at this and think we're going to take a hit.”

The county response is in addition to rescue services provided by Cochiti Lake, Jemez Pueblo, and the town of Cuba. Those three departments handled an additional 102 calls during the month.
Tibbetts said the department is at full staff, with fifteen personnel cross-trained as firefighters and emergency-medical technicians. The seven fires in July gave former town of Bernalillo EMTs their first good experience in firefighting, Tibbetts added.

The department is supported by an established quarter-percent fire-fund sales tax and a new quarter-percent EMS tax. County voters renewed the fire tax and approved the EMS tax last year.

Wildfire can make you run for your life

As we stood on a hillside in Idaho’s Boulder-White Cloud mountains watching a fire bear down on us, I told my friend Dave that this was the closest I'd been to a wildfire without getting paid for it.

We'd just finished speed-hiking down from a high lake basin, after the Forest Service told us to get out. The Valley Road Fire, we’d been told, was growing too fast to guarantee the safety of backpackers.

I'm tempted to hum the tune to “Gilligan's Island” just now. Our three-day trip into my favorite mountain range was going to be relaxed: we had dogs, we had wine, we had good friends and great weather.

The other temptation is to say that I sensed this fire was coming. Late on the first night in the mountains I stepped out of my tent to look at the stars and noticed that the air was completely still and warm. Almost too warm, I thought. Then I crawled back into my sleeping bag. If I had any weather-predicting skills, I’d call that "foreshadowing."

Instead, we marched to another lake the next day. When we had unpacked our gear and got to the hard work of lying around on the lake's shore, we noticed a plume of smoke building over the ridge, right toward the valley where our cars were parked.

"Cool," I believe, was the most commonly-used word at first. "Whoa," became the next exclamation, as the column built and we realized a major fire was underway. It had been 10 years since I’d fought fires for the government in Idaho, but a big fire always looks like a big fire. This one now had wind, sun and lots and lots of dry lodgepole forest, much of it beetle-killed.

Right around cocktail hour we got our first visit from Jocelyn, a backcountry ranger for the Forest Service and a credit to her agency. With politeness, good cheer and patience, she informed us the fire was growing fast—it would eventually spread over 40,000 acres—and that we were likely to be kicked out of the woods the next day.

We knew she was serious when she returned to get descriptions of our cars and to ask if we had left keys hidden on them. Those people who left keys would see their cars again, and luckily, that included us. Those who didn't, well, maybe not.

The next day saw us tramping down to our new destination, heading for a rendezvous with Forest Service folks who would shuttle us out of the wilderness. We stopped every now and then to get another look at the boiling plume, massive and dark and moving closer.

My anxiety level was growing by the minute. Then, the fire poured over a massive ridge and began moving rapidly toward the valley we were trying to leave. With still a mile to go, we were in danger. I spurred the fast hikers on toward the trailhead, found the slower ones, and told them they had two options: Haul butt to the safety of the road, or watch the fire boil over them from the not-so-safe but wet shores of a nearby creek.

That inspired my hiking buddies to run for their lives. Later, bending over and gasping for air at the trailhead, they said they'd never hiked so fast with a backpack on.

The next thing we knew, we were bumping down a forest road in a pickle-green Suburban, headed for our shuttled cars, high-fiving each other over our good fortune and pitying those folks whose cars were now little more than high-altitude boat anchors.
I miss firefighting sometimes. I miss the thrill of it, of flying fast in a helicopter toward a big column of smoke. This one, I heard later, reached up almost 30,000 feet, where it was visible 100 miles away. I still love the smell of a wildfire. For three summers of my life, fighting fire meant money, work and fun.

But either I'm aging into moderation or I don't like getting taken by surprise, because the level of anxiety I felt watching this fire come my way was new. Those moments were frightening, waiting for my friends to round the bend to safety.

I hear the cost of fighting the Valley Road Fire will probably rise to $6 million. It’s still smoldering, by the way. Only snow will put it out for good.

Shea Andersen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He writes in Boise, Idaho, for, the online magazine.



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