Unsung Heroes 2019

Unsung Hero: Russ Driskell

Río Fernando fire chief asks, ‘Who’s next?’

By John Miller
Posted 10/10/19

On June 25, Río Fernando Fire Chief Russ Driskell and several of his volunteer firefighters answered a call to assist with a brush fire near the old Stakeout restaurant on State Road …

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Unsung Heroes 2019

Unsung Hero: Russ Driskell

Río Fernando fire chief asks, ‘Who’s next?’

Posted

On June 25, Río Fernando Fire Chief Russ Driskell and several of his volunteer firefighters answered a call to assist with a brush fire near the old Stakeout restaurant on State Road 68.

The report of the fire came in the middle of the afternoon, buzzing across radios in the 13 volunteer fire stations that cover Taos County’s 2,200 square miles of high mountain and desert: A driver passing by had seen the smoke. The fire was growing on the east side of the roadway. 

By the time the first truck from the Taos Volunteer Fire Department arrived, the flames had spread to cover a sizable field of sagebrush. The wind was also picking up, causing those flames to creep through understory dry enough to flare in spite of an especially wet winter and cool spring.

Taos Fire needed support, so they called on Hondo Seco Fire Department and Río Fernando, where Driskell has served as chief for the past 23 years.

He started volunteering in the late 1970s with Taos Fire. His uncle worked there as chief. Driskell and his two younger brothers grew up in the fire house, starting out raising the big bay doors for the trucks to roll out on a call, their lights flashing and sirens wailing, and then seeing how quickly they could dress in fire suits, including masks and oxygen tanks.

By the time they were old enough to become volunteers when they turned 18, doing it for real felt second nature, Driskell said.

Now at 60, his body has seen wear and tear from the many calls he’s responded to, but his mind remains one of the sharpest in the county when it comes to knowing fire — how it moves and how to fight it effectively.

So when he got the call in June, the wheels started turning immediately.

“I think the biggest difference today after doing it for so many years is my mind — is creating the world’s worst scenario when I’m on the way to the scene,” Driskell said.

They arrived aboard two brush trucks, which are essentially heavy-duty pickups equipped with custom beds, hoses and tanks that carry several hundred gallons of water or cooling foam. Another squad of volunteers from his department brought a water tender truck, a much larger vehicle fitted with hoses and a tank that can hold thousands of gallons.

The flames had jumped from the brush to a few low trees by the time Driskell arrived — the flames and smoke blowing slantwise in the wind — but the Taos firefighters had control of the situation and were keeping the blaze from spreading.

Driskell and his team helped clean up, dousing the smoky, blackened field, which that day became one of many scars on the Northern New Mexico landscape that marks where a small fire could have become the big one that volunteer firefighters prepare for.

Last year’s drought in New Mexico served as a reminder of just how important that training is.

The Ute Park Fire, which consumed 36,740 acres of forest in Colfax County from May to mid-June 2018, could have spread into Taos County, Driskell said. The winds could have turned just right, he explained, pushing the flames west through the mountains.

Locally, though, Driskell’s greatest fear is a major fire in the 15-mile stretch of Taos Canyon where his department is headquartered.

“For us in Taos Canyon, a summer like we had last year, there’s no fighting a fire that gets started there,” he said. “It’s going to be strictly evacuation — move people out of the way and make sure they’re safe before it consumes Taos Canyon.”

He said that the roughly 80 permanent residents who live in the canyon also know the risk that almost any small fire could become a big one. Every year they clean up dry brush around their homes to create defensible space.

But whether it’s 10 years away or 100, Driskell said his part of the county, where he also lives, will one day see a major fire that will require a quick response, and the volunteers necessary to carry it out.

Another fear is that those volunteers might not be there.

Today, there are a little over 200 men and women who serve with volunteer fire departments around Taos County. They respond to car accidents. They clean up waste spills. They provide medical support. They recover bodies. And fight fires.

According to Driskell, there also aren’t nearly enough of them.

Recently, he said there have been between 12 and 13 people who volunteer with Río Fernando Fire Department. The average age is about 55. All of them make sacrifices, halting moments with their families, leaving work early or sacrificing sleep to answer calls that come at inconvenient times.

Ideally, Driskell would like to see 20 or 21 people enrolled at his department who are willing to make those sacrifices.

Just three days of training, he said, make someone useful on a call, and a year’s probation gives a volunteer the time and experience to learn the science of fighting fires and “why they’re doing it.”

Finding people willing to give that time, though, is getting harder and harder, he said.

“The general consensus is that volunteerism is slowing way down,” he said. “We’re on the declining ages of where people really willingly gave to the public. It’s a dying art. It really is.”

And he understands why.

“Taos being Taos, most people have to work two or three jobs to enjoy our beautiful climate, beautiful weather, beautiful surroundings,” he said. “For those of us who were born and raised here, it’s home. We don’t see it any other way, but spending the time to volunteer, the time to train and willingly give that time is hard to do nowadays.”

Throughout his career, Driskell has always swung a day job while serving as a volunteer. He worked for 26 years at Taos Cycleworks. Since 2007, he has worked as general manager at Randall Lumber and Hardware.

On a week day you can find him behind the counter at the shop, but when the community calls for it, he still dons the red hat, serving alongside other county residents who every year give freely of their time, not knowing who else might step up to take their place.

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