A volunteer fire department member is alleging the Rio Arriba County fire marshal made a racist comment about Native Americans after the volunteer and fire marshal left a scene of a chimney fire.
Velarde Fire Department Volunteer Eddie Velarde wrote in a Jan. 4 fire incident report that County Fire Marshal Carlos Esquibel said he “did not want those Indians in Velarde” after a page for Ohkay Owingeh Fire Department to provide mutual aid at the scene.
Esquibel did not submit a report about the fire and the response by volunteers to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, and will not be required to do so until July 1, 2020.
Esquibel said he did not make the comment and that Velarde was targeting him in the incident report for personal reasons.
“They are trying to get me in trouble,” Esquibel said during a July interview.
Velarde and Volunteer Firefighter Rose Romero responded to the Jan. 4 call, after someone reported fire coming out of the chimney attached to a wood stove in their mobile home, the incident report states.
Velarde responded to the page at 7:32 a.m. and asked emergency dispatchers to page Ohkay Owingeh Fire Department for mutual aid at 7:40 a.m. Alcalde Volunteer Fire Department members responded to the page and were en route to the scene at 7:41 a.m.
Esquibel canceled the page for Ohkay Owingeh at 7:41 a.m, the report states. Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputies were also on scene, the report states.
Esquibel later said County fire districts are supposed to call contiguous districts for mutual aid before calling non-County departments for assistance.
The report alleges two other members of the Alcalde Department were on site, but did not report to dispatch.
Velarde then inspected the mobile home, and asked dispatch to downgrade the call to the Alcalde Department, but for volunteers to still come to the scene, the report states.
Esquibel then told the Alcalde volunteers to proceed out to a different structure fire and informed them they did not need to come to the site of the Velarde incident, the report states. The Alcalde Department then self-canceled the call.
After the Alcalde volunteers canceled, Velarde told dispatch there was an active fire in the chimney. He, along with an unspecified number of Sheriff’s Office deputies, put out the fire with only a small amount of water, the report states.
Velarde then gave the all-clear and headed back to the station, he wrote in the report. He met with Esquibel nearby, where he alleges he told him not to page Ohkay Owingeh out for any assistance.
“(Velarde) informed (Esquibel) that every fire department in Rio Arriba was using them and why can’t Velarde (Volunteer Fire Department),” the report states. “(Esquibel) stated that ‘He did not want those Indians in Velarde.’”
Esquibel said that he did not say this, that he would never make this type of comment and that he has family members and friends who are Ohkay Owingeh tribal members.
He also said that there was a protocol for all volunteer fire departments to follow when requesting mutual aid and that it is in place to protect the County from any liability and for the safety of the volunteers.
Velarde currently has a lawsuit pending with the County and has a fraught relationship with County officials.
Court documents show Velarde is suing the County for breach of contract and for violating the Whistle Blower Protection Act. The case was filed in 2016.
Velarde became a volunteer firefighter in 1976, but was fired by the County in 2012, which led him to sue the County, court documents state. A settlement was reached in 2014 and Velarde was reinstated to the Velarde Department.
“Mr. Velarde’s default position appears to be a combination of bad faith and narcissism, and he creates situations that he then complains about in an attempt to manipulate things in his favor,” Rio Arriba County Attorney Adán Trujillo wrote in a July 19 email.
Esquibel emailed members of the various volunteer fire departments, including Velarde Department volunteer Franklin Salazar, a week after the Jan. 4 chimney fire regarding the County’s mutual aid protocol.
“This is a reminder that when requesting mutual aid, it shall be necessary to first use County resources before requesting mutual aid from non-County agencies,” Esquibel wrote.
Departments are to first request aid from neighboring volunteer fire districts, he wrote. The La Mesilla and Canjilon departments may be requested at any time to use their air trucks.
If mutual aid is still required, volunteers in distant County fire districts can be called, Esquibel’s email states.
As a last resort, non-County agencies, such as tribal fire departments and departments in Santa Fe and Taos counties, can be called, Esquibel wrote in the email.
“We strive to build trust in our relationships with each other and with our neighboring districts, and to form good working relationships with our fellow County volunteers,” he wrote.
Esquibel said he had a good relationship with former Ohkay Owingeh fire chief Freddie Seeds, but even then, the two were unable to get an official mutual aid agreement in place.
“We tried to have these agreements with any contiguous area that we can,” Esquibel said.
It comes down to liability, he said.
County volunteer firefighters have insurance once they become members, he said. Volunteers also have to attend trainings, all fire trucks and equipment are routinely inspected and this helps makes sure everyone is safe.
If an Ohkay Owingeh firefighter comes out to a scene and is injured, it could open up the County government to a lawsuit since the person was working in the County, Esquibel said.
Ohkay Owingeh Fire Chief Jude Gabaldon said although his department and the County do not have a mutual aid agreement, they have always helped each other.
“It was a great working relationship with Alcalde, Chamita, Velarde (volunteer fire departments), but that relationship just kind of diminished once (Esquibel) got involved,” he said.
The Velarde Department only has three members and Gabaldon said the two departments had a strong relationship and providing mutual aid was almost automatic.
He said he believes that personal issues between people are fueling this dispute and that if people from Ohkay Owingeh were allowed to be part of conversations to solve this problem, they could figure out a solution together.
“All he had to do was reach out to us and we would have got it taken care of,” Gabaldon said.
Fire incident reports must be uploaded to the National Fire Incident Reporting System. The System is part of the U.S. Fire Administration and is used to maintain uniform records about fire incidents for fire departments across the country.
Esquibel said the individual volunteer fire departments are responsible for uploading the reports to the System by the 10th of each month.
An Inspection of Public Records Act request sent to the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission May 2 for all reports submitted to the System by the Velarde Department did not yield any documents for the Jan. 4 incident.
Esquibel is acting fire chief for the Velarde Department and is responsible for submitting reports to the System, he said.
He did not submit a report for the Jan. 4 incident to the System because it contained too many factual errors, he said.
For example, Esquibel said when he came onto the scene he did not see an active fire or flames.
This is in contrast to the report written by Velarde, which states there was a small, active fire in the chimney.
This is the same report in which Velarde alleges Esquibel said he “did not want those Indians in Velarde.”
Esquibel denied that he said this for a second time during a Monday telephone interview.
The System requires data about a fire incident to be submitted in a specific way.
An online System tutorial outlines the basic procedure for reporting an incident. The person submitting the report has to provide specific information, such as the cause of ignition, the structure type, what type of apparatus was used and the number of injuries.
Esquibel said the system allows for the reporter to include a narrative, but that it is kept very short.
For example, a report submitted to the system for a Jan. 8 structure fire Velarde Department volunteers responded to is two sentences long.
“Velarde fire paged out for mutual aid for Chamita VFD for a structure fire,” the Jan. 8 report states. “Assisted with traffic control and manpower.”
The annual reporting date for all incident reports in the previous calendar year is July 1 of the current calendar year, the System’s website states.
This means Esquibel still has about 11 months before the deadline to submit the report about the Jan. 4 incident.