LAS VEGAS, N.M. — The women in the La Placita Volunteer Fire Department outnumber the men and blow away the national statistics when it comes to the number of female firefighters.
Located in San Miguel County’s remote Gallinas Canyon, the department has six female firefighters and five male firefighters. In addition, there are three women who volunteer as support staff providing food, water and assistance during emergencies.
Seven percent of the nation’s career and volunteer firefighters are women, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In the La Placita department, female firefighters make up 55 percent.
In addition, there are only 150 volunteer female fire chiefs in the United States, according to the International Women in Fire and Emergency Services; one of them is Karen Baldi, who has served at the helm for La Placita for four years.
“That pioneer spirt,” Baldi said when asked why the department has so many women volunteers. “There’s that element still that no one’s sitting around here.”
A number of these women have or had high-powered careers. La Placita firefighter Mary Kay Root is an attorney and head of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department Alcohol and Gaming Division in Santa Fe. Mary Shaw is a recently retired New Mexico Highlands University biology professor, while Baldi is a retired Air Force physician.
And then there’s 2nd Lt. Betty Martinez, who served as an administrative assistant for 17 years for Las Vegas Schools.
Prior to that she drove a school bus for 14 years; her route included the narrow and winding Gallinas Canyon Road.
“Betty is our best driver,” Baldi said. “She’s used to swinging school buses around.”
It’s something Martinez, 61, loves.
“Where else can an old woman drive a big red truck?” Baldi joked. “It’s a rush.”
Martinez and her husband, Jack, were among La Placita’s founding members. Its 34-square-mile fire district starts at the 9-mile marker of the Gallinas Canyon Road and includes El Porvenir, the home to Hermit’s Peak and the cliffs bordering the canyon, nearby Johnson’s Mesa and a portion of the Santa Fe National Forest.
Firefighters receive more calls for wildfires than anything else, followed by searches for lost or injured hikers at Hermit’s Peak and Johnson’s Mesa, Baldi said.
Shaw, 66, also helped start the fire department.
“We’re so far from town, maybe 12 to 13 miles” she said. “That narrow road and getting fire trucks up here takes time. You have to be pretty self-reliant.”
Baldi, 62, joined the fire department seven years ago.
“The people here (in the fire department) are great,” she said. “We have a good division of labor. The guys do the trucks and the heavy lifting, and I do the brain work – the computer and reports.”
That’s not to say the women don’t carry their load.
“They get their hands dirty,” Baldi said. “When we’re up in the mountains, they have to grab hand tools and hike. You can’t get a vehicle in there. It’s too rugged.”
Assistant fire chief Jack Martinez trusts the department’s female firefighters with his life.
“We are used to being with each other,” he said. “We look after each other’s backs and we can depend on them to get the equipment. They are aggressive.”
Fire Capt. Paul Martinez agrees.
“I do trust them and they know their stuff,” Martinez added. “They’re my friends, my neighbors and are actually like family.”
Information from: Las Vegas Optic, http://www.lasvegasoptic.com