Just when we think it is safe to go into the wood, we go from one crisis to another: that’s life. Maybe we are safe or maybe not. The weatherman announces, “Fire Season in New Mexico.” For this, too, some get a face mask for sale and wear it. Fire is big and hot and scary. Many summers ago, we had a pigeon light on two wires next door to us. It was big trouble for him, as he exploded, and the dry grass caught fire and burned fast. As I was driving by and saw the fire, I got out of my car to call 911. As I did, a pine tree also exploded—with the sound of a mortar shell burst. I screamed on the cell phone to the dispatcher, “It blew up!” It burned a half an acre before the volunteers got it out. The key word here is volunteer.

I have a friend, Janna Ashby, who I taught with at Cleveland Middle School for 14 years. She is a remarkable person in her own right, with an education that would stun even Bill Gates nerds. Janna has a B.A. in Elementary Education, MBA, ED. SP in Administration. Whew! That is most of the alphabet. She moved to the mountains in 1974 with no telephone. She was glad when she got an 8-party line service. She was driving around looking for a lost dog when she came upon a few of the area residents. One gentleman offered her the invitation to come to a meeting of the volunteer firefighters for their community. Janna asked, “You let women join, too?” She did find the dog and became a pioneer woman fast.

According to Janna the definition of a Volunteer Firefighter is one who gives of his or her time—with no pay—and goes through extensive training. Training for this included driving fire equipment, learning the jargon, suiting up with protective gear, handling hoses and carrying their own water. There were no hydrants in the East Mountains. Janna learned well that fire burns the same for the volunteer firefighters as it does with paid personnel. In cities, towns or mountainsides, people suffer the same traumatic loss of homes, livestock, and pets.

As time passed the volunteers were given 81 hours of EMT training at Kirtland AFB, standards set by the U.S. Dept of Transportation. The money for this training came from Bernalillo Coounty; the only paid employee was Ernest Gutierrez. He was there for eight hours a day, five days a week. In 1974, they had no communication equipment, so the only way volunteers knew there was a fire was to be outside and hear the sirens. Then they raced to the station and followed the trail of water, from their leaky truck, on the highway. Eventually, they got new equipment and better communication devices. Finally, after many years of service the volunteers were retired and the county paid fire and rescue personnel.

Janna quit in 1983; however she used the firefighting lessons in the classroom. As a history lesson, she told stories of how tax money paid for equipment that gave protection to us all. When she taught Science, Janna used the fire triangle of fuel, heat, and oxygen. She told them the tale of when she and her brother tried to kill one another. Both added fuel without the other knowing. Someone put in extra wood on top of a smoldering fire. The air duct was almost shut. The fire should have burned slowly all night. But when Janna opened the door, it gave a full rush of air. It exploded a with a 6-foot tower of flame. Good thing Janna was to the side of it. To quote her, “Scary!” Brothers are like that.

I asked about funny things that happened. Janna responded with, “The time we learned rappelling and we needed to do it more than once when we had to deal with a car over a cliff. I stood at the edge and looked down. Everything told me not to step over the edge to my certain death. I just froze. As person after person went around me and over the edge, I just mentally scolded myself for being the Chief and not acting as a leader. I finally gritted my teeth, stepped over the edge, and felt the greatest rush of adrenaline you could imagine. I did it. That one thing taught me that I could do more than I thought I could achieve. Much of it was diving forward in actual life situations.” Janna went on to tell about a car stuck in a snowbank in the middle of the night. The problem was not the snow, the problem was the baby coming who did not care when or where. They got the mother out and baby girl, too.

According to New Mexico Magazine, Tijeras and South 14 were lucky to have these volunteers. The Volunteer Lady Fire Chiefs of Tijeras were Mary Chambers, Chief of Bernalillo County Fire District 10. Next, Eloisa Garcia was Chief at the Village of Tijeras, Fire Department. And Janna Ashby was Chief of Bernalillo County Fire Distict 11 on South 14. It covered many miles, all the way past Chilili.

Janna said, “We all, women and men, got involved with the fire department to fill a need to help one another. During the day sometimes most people were away at work and usually there were only women around to help our lone, paid firefighter.” Volunteers back then and now. First responders, you gotta love ‘em. Roaring Mouse, clearing brush from around the house. Out.

Jo White
Jo White

From 1966 to 1971, Jo attended the University of New Mexico and Memphis State University, earning degrees in Communications, English, Journalism, Speech and Drama with history minors. At UNM, her hero was Tony Hillerman. She taught high school and middle school in city, country, and private schools for 30 years. Roaring Mouse is in its 25 th year. She can be reached at jomouse@aol.com