NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – There’s trouble along the border and it’s centered in the southwest New Mexico Village of Columbus. No, it’s not drugs or crime. This border town with a population of 1,600 is facing a different crisis. One hundred years ago it was Pancho Villa and his a band of Mexican fighters who raided Columbus committing murder and mayhem. Today, it’s fire protection. Specifically, obsolete fire hydrants that haven’t worked in years.
In Columbus, the fire hydrant at the corner of Howard and Hughes has been sitting for years with a broken stem. No one is quite sure the last time the hydrant on New Orleans Avenue has had water but Columbus Assistant Fire Chief Nicole Lawson thinks it’s been at least 20 years. The Village Volunteer Fire Department knows if there is a blaze at a commercial building along Highway 11, they won’t be able to put the fire out with water from the nearest hydrant, it’s been out of service for as long as anyone can remember. Throughout the village, life-saving fire hydrants are broken and out of service.
Columbus Mayor Esequiel Salas admits there simply isn’t enough money in the town’s limited budget to repair or replace all the inoperable hydrants in Columbus. “As far as funds, no, we don’t have enough money to fix all the problems that we have,” Mayor Salas said. “We have to pick and choose our priorities. It’s important that we get these fire hydrants fixed. We need help from the outside. We can’t do it alone. Absolutely not.” Mayor Salas says the Village has applied to the Colonias Fund for a grant to help replace broken fire hydrants in Columbus.
Columbus is not alone. A five-year KRQE News 13 investigation finds scores of inoperable fire hydrants throughout the state. Many have been out of order for years, some for decades. “For a firefighter responding to a fire, a fire hydrant is everything. If it doesn’t work, it’s catastrophic for somebody,” says Valencia County Fire Chief Matt Propp. “It’s the number one priority. I know that there are literally lives on the line and properties at risk by not prioritizing that fire hydrant,” Chief Propp said.
Fire hydrants must be routinely inspected to ensure adequate water flow and pressure. However, if a hydrant is found to be inoperable, there is no requirement to repair it. “Fire hydrants degrade. Without proper testing and maintenance, they will cease to function,” says Silver City Fire Chief and President of the New Mexico Fire Marshall’s Association, Milo Lambert. “It’s extremely important. They are a functional life safety device that is the equivalent of having a non-functioning fire truck or a malfunctioning fire alarm in a school. It’s critically important,” Chief Lambert said.
The northeast New Mexico village of Springer also struggles to keep up with fire hydrant repair. In Springer, the 66-year-old hydrant at County & 6th Street, a residential neighborhood, has been out of service for at least 7 years with a seized stem. The hydrant at Colbert & 8th Street is inoperable and has been on Springer’s list of broken hydrants every year since 2015. And, the fire hydrant at Springer’s National Guard building is just for show. It hasn’t carried water in years.
In Gallup, KRQE News 13’s investigation discovered faulty fire hydrants scattered throughout the western New Mexico town. The hydrant on West Highway 66 has been out of service for years with a broken stem. The hydrant at Second & Wilson doesn’t have any water and has been on Gallup’s repair list for years. Even though the hydrant in front of a west Gallup hotel is out of service, the City of Gallup can’t repair it because the hydrant sits on private property. Gallup officials tell KRQE News 13 that they try to keep up with fire hydrant repairs but contending with antiquated water lines is a continuing challenge.
Like Gallup, the town of Belen is faced with too many inoperable fire hydrants. Belen Mayor Robert Noblin says the community does not have the resources to fix all broken hydrants. “At a cost of seven to ten thousand dollars apiece, barring any other complexities in the repair or replacement, that’s tough on the city’s budget. That’s a half-million dollars out of our General Fund to replace all of them,” Mayor Noblin said.
And then, there’s the Village of Carrizozo. For the 900 residents who live in this rural Lincoln County community, daily life can sometimes be daunting. There’s no pharmacy. The movie theater and the grocery store are out of business and the local newspaper shut down last year.
When it comes to public safety, Carrizozo depends on a network of fire hydrants to protect the community. For example, the hydrant at 10th & E. “It’s never worked. It’s not hooked up to any water system,” says Carrizozo’s long-time Fire Chief Leeroy Zamora. “When I was young before I joined the department, they told me (the hydrant) was a dummy. It was never hooked up to the waterline,” Chief Zamora says.
The fire hydrant at 5th & G is just a prop. “It’s an antique. I don’t think it’s ever had water run through it,” Chief Zamora said. It’s the same story all over the village: Derelict hydrants. Broken. Useless. Birch Street. Cedar Street. 11th & E. 5th & D.
“I have a list of each hydrant its location and how it functions,” Carrizozo Mayor Ray Dean said. “From that list, you can see there are a number of fire hydrants that if they were called into service, they would be worthless.”
“We’re fortunate in not having fires very often, but we know it’s only a matter of time. The school, for instance. That would be a huge, huge tragedy. And I can probably take you to a fire hydrant next to the school that’s not functioning at all,” Mayor Dean said.
As an isolated, rural community there aren’t funds in Carrizozo’s coffers for fire hydrant repair or replacement. In January, Mayor Dean appealed to state lawmakers for help with a $350,000 Capital Outlay request. “It was not funded,” Mayor Dean says. The same request to the 2021 Legislature was also rejected. Lawmakers in Santa Fe did appropriate a total of $1.5 million dollars for golf course improvements. However, not a dime for Carrizozo fire hydrants. “I don’t understand why (fire hydrants don’t) have a higher priority with the funders. I just I don’t understand that,” Carrizozo Mayor Ray Dean said.
Mayor Dean says he’ll make his pitch to state lawmakers again, next year. Carrizozo will just have to get in line. Right behind Gallup, Belen and Columbus.