Sometimes the calls come in the early morning, and sometimes they come late at night.
No matter the time, Peñasco resident and volunteer firefighter Juan “John” Abeyta is ready for action, guiding first responders on back roads to reach the remote sites where people need help.
“Once I hear the call, I know where I’m going,” Abeyta said, explaining that many of their calls come from deep in Carson National Forest. “I know this mountain like my hands.”
At 72 years old, Abeyta has had a lot of time to memorize the contours of the area roads. Born in 1945 during the final months of World War II, he said he started firefighting at the age of 18. For a time, he served as part of a Hotshot crew, an elite unit of interagency firefighters sent to battle the most difficult blazes. In 1973, he joined the volunteer fire department in Peñasco and has remained in its service for 44 years. From 1993 to 2003, he lobbied Taos County officials for funding to construct a fire substation in Chamisal. Finally built in 2003, that station was named in honor of Abeyta in 2015. The Chamisal fire station has five firefighters, including himself.
“I tell them this is my way away from home,” Abeyta said. “I like to be here, and I like to help the community.”
There are a few ways Abeyta has made the station his home. On one wall is a map of the station’s regional jurisdiction, which stretches all the way to the borders of Río Arriba and Mora counties. Inside the refrigerator is a stock of three beverages: bottled water, Coca-Cola and Pepsi. A set of Pepsi boxes in a cabinet, however, reveals Abeyta’s true brand loyalties – and who is really responsible for supplying the station.
As a firefighter, though, he’s seen his fair share of action. In 1977, he was on call for a mesa fire in Los Alamos when his crew was separated into two groups and narrowly escaped a rockslide. Another time, while fighting a wildfire in Arizona, a blaze was descending a hill where they were ordered to try and hold a line. Abeyta objected on the grounds that it would be too dangerous. His words proved prescient – fortunately, they didn’t descend the hill, which soon erupted into flames.
“If we’d have gone in there, we’d have been baked potatoes,” Abeyta said, going on to explain the importance of common sense. “When a fire is a little too hot, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you have some common sense, [it’s] no problem.”
Abeyta supported himself and his family over the years as a logger. Initially, he worked for the Forest Service and made some extra money by logging on the weekends. A forest ranger caught wind of this and called him into his office, confronting him about the clear conflict of interest (since the Forest Service sold trees to the logging companies). Then Abeyta handed the ranger his notice. Soon after quitting, he was promoted to the rank of supervisor for his logging crew.
Logging and firefighting shared transferable skills – Abeyta worked with a chainsaw in both fields. “A lot of people think that falling logs is easy,” Abeyta said. “You got to have your mind out here. … I know what that tree is going to do because [I’ve got] too much experience.”
Throughout his firefighting and logging career, Abeyta has visited much of the greater 48 United States. The odometers on his trucks prove it — one of his vehicles has a whopping 485,000 miles on it. Another of his has traversed an also mind-boggling 379,000 miles.
Amid that mileage, Abeyta has only been severely injured twice in his career, and he still has the scars to prove it. “In the 50 years I cut logs, I only cut myself one time and it was my fault,” explaining an occasion when he misjudged the stability of a snag, a part of a dead tree. In 1989, another snag fell and hit him while he was cutting a tree, and his saw went flying 16 feet away. About two months of physical therapy brought him back to form.
His wife of 52 years, Rosanna, has often been concerned about his dangerous career choices. “She said I was stupid and crazy for doing all the things,” though adding, “I’m still here.”
Juan and Rosanna Abeyta raised three children: John, Maxime and Valerie. Now, Abeyta has eight grandchildren and one great-granddaughter in his family, who has just learned to walk.
When asked to reflect on his selection as an “unsung hero,” Abeyta was demure.
“It’s OK,” Abeyta said.
“No problem for me.”
“He’s very humble,” Judge Ernest Ortega of Taos County Magistrate Court said, who nominated Abeyta for the award. Ortega added that Abeyta keeps “every inch” of his station’s fire engines polished.
For Abeyta, being a firefighter has its psychological pitfalls and rewards.
“I’ve seen bad things and good things,” Abeyta said. “You’ve got to deal with it, whether you like it or not.”