On a cold and bright winter day in early 2016, Max Ortega walked into the Questa Fire Department and announced his retirement to his crew, including his two sons, Mark and John, who had grown up under the roof of the firehouse. There, they had seen their father don his bunker gear and board the firetruck countless times over the course of his 43-year career at the department, where he served as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician and for 16 years as chief.
Although only two of the men gathered that day were Ortega’s sons, the other firefighters, too, looked to Ortega as a kind of patriarch – someone who had trained them and guided them as they answered calls that took them into buildings filled with smoke and to the edges of fields engulfed in flames. They responded to many medical emergencies in an ambulance the department lost its ability to operate in the late 1990s, but which Ortega succeeded in bringing back in the mid-2000s.
The members of the team came to the aid of the residents of Northern New Mexico, many of them friends and neighbors, saving some and offering final comforts to others who could not be saved. Many of the calls, Ortega said, were the sort you wished you could forget, the kind that were difficult to explain to a spouse or a son or a daughter when asked to find the words.
And so when the crew learned that their most recent call would be Ortega’s last, many of them were driven to tears. “There was not a dry eye in the firehouse,” Ortega recalled. “To me, that really meant a lot.”
Ortega left that day a civilian, and his son, Mark, was soon elected to take his place. But in this small village at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains – as in many small towns, where ancient laws of community still seem to exist, where a helpful gesture is not some grand act of generosity, but a way of life, where elements as simple as fire and water still hold sway – the passing of an official title does not mark the end of a lifetime of service but the opening of a new chapter.
On another winter day nearly one year after Ortega hung up his gear for the last time, the community called upon him to serve again.
In early December 2016, the first resident in Questa, a town of nearly 2,000 people, reported a loss of water pressure in their home. By the next week, similar reports were pouring in – taps and spigots all over the area trickled, dripped and dried.
The town declared an emergency, which quickly became known across New Mexico as the “Questa water crisis.”
Ortega agreed to serve as incident commander during the outage. He worked with Questa Mayor Mark Gallegos, town council members and Taos County government officials to create an action plan that would provide Questa residents with emergency water sources. With the support of several Taos businesses, they supplied bottled and non-potable water while teams scrambled to find the suspected leak.
Ultimately, its source was not one, but many, as old asbestos and concrete water lines were losing water in several sections. One of the team’s first moves was to drill a deeper well to source a new aquifer, but refilling old water lines that had degraded with age took time and money and, above all, patience on the part of residents.
The well was completed on Dec. 12, but repressurizing water lines and restoring service would take longer, as new leaks were being discovered. Nearly 100 residents were still without running water by Jan. 12, but one month later, lines were repressurized and water was flowing again.
Town officials were criticized during the water crisis for allegedly neglecting the maintenance of their water system, yet Questa residents persevered under Ortega’s boots-on-the-ground leadership. The face of their former fire chief served as a familiar and welcome sight for many during a holiday season that had been darkened by the interruption of a precious resource.
It wasn’t the first time in the town’s history that the water lines had failed. More than 60 years earlier, when Ortega was a boy in Questa, he recalled a time when any running water was a luxury and was treated with a deep reverence, especially during fire season.
When the first water lines were being laid in Questa, a young Max Ortega would wake up early each morning, chop wood and scoop a bucket of water from the acequia that ran through his family’s cattle ranch. The water would slosh in the pail as he carried it back to the house, where his mother boiled it for cleaning dishes, clothes and floors.
In the 1950s, there was running water in just a few houses in Questa. Ortega’sfamily home, located about a mile north of the main intersection in town, had some access in those days, he said, yet the practice of sourcing water from a local irrigation ditch continued throughout the community.
Ortega’s father served on the village council and was serving a term as mayor when Ortega was in high school. The Ortegas had lived and worked in Questa for generations – their involvement in the community an integral part of their identity.
After school, Ortega would often walk home and would sometimes hear sirens blaring from some inestimable distance outside town. The yowl would grow louder and he would see a firetruck speed by, a helmeted driver behind the wheel and other firemen similarly garbed riding alongside.
It was during those moments that it first occurred to Ortega that joining the fire department could be his own way of giving back to the community. After meeting his wife, Monica, in 1972 at New Mexico State University, the couple returned to Questa, where Ortega took a job at the Chevron molybdenum mine in Questa. But spending day after day down the shaft working as an engineer was exhausting, and he hungered to do what he had always wanted.
“We were pretty much newlyweds when he decided to join the fire department,” Monica said. “At that time, we were the youngest ones in the department. The rest were pretty much seasoned members.”
That was in 1973. Ortega completed and became skilled at his job. He learned how to control fires and balance his day job with sometimes hourslong shifts on the firetruck after the sun went down.
“House fires were the most common calls that I can remember,” he said, as he recalled pulling people from “fully involved” house fires and more brush fires than he could count.
Now 64, many of the calls run together.
But he did remember the department’s function as an emergency service center, with its operation of an ambulance, as an integral piece of its role in Questa and other remote northern towns, like Cerro, Amalia and Costilla.
‘I still hear the pages’
In the late 1990s, the department lost its ability to operate the ambulance its crew members had driven for nearly two decades. When Ortega was appointed chief in 2000, he made getting it back a priority.
He rallied support from the Questa community and petitioned Taos County. He completed a lengthy application process. In 2004, he succeeded in returning the ambulance and securing county funding to pay staff that would work the day shift. The night shift would be covered by volunteers.
Ortega considers this one of his proudest achievements, and he considers the members who serve on the ambulance some of his best.
“People like to do volunteer firefighting,” he said, “but to deal with an ambulance is different. You’re dealing with people’s lives, and we’ve had some bad calls, calls that you don’t want to remember. And that’s why I hold all firefighters and EMTs dear to my heart – because they see so many things, things that can bother you for the rest of your life. And whether you’re paid or a volunteer, it’s the same stuff.”
Both Mark and John joined their father in the department, working alongside him as firefighters and EMTs. Under Ortega’s tenure, the crew built up its stock of equipment and completed advanced training. The department grew in size and sophistication from the small operation that Ortega had joined as a young man.
When he entered his 60s, Ortega wrestled with the decision to retire, but knew that his body wouldn’t keep up with the demanding job of running the department. He made the decision to leave his post after 16 years as chief. He says he knew it was the right decision, but there is still a part of him that wants to get in his truck and drive to a scene when the scanner crackles with a report of an emergency. “I still hear the pages,” he said, “and I still want to go, but the aches and pains and all that ... now it’s a little different.”
Ortega said he never thought about the legacy he was building as he worked for so many years as a fireman. “Mark and John, I never thought that they would continue,” he said, “but they’re continuing.”
These days, Ortega spends his time planning fishing trips and camping outings with Monica. In August, he likes to go out into town to watch the people from Taos Pueblo make their annual journey on horseback to the scar on Cabresto to collect clay. Ortega still remembers the fire. But most of his time is now spent at home with Monica and their 6-year-old grandson, Bo, Mark’s son.
Bo already has his own fire hat. He knows all the equipment and all the drills from watching his father, uncle and grandfather under the roof of the firehouse. And in the evenings, Bo often sits on the floor of his grandfather’s living room shuttling a little toy firetruck across the carpet. On many of those evenings, long after the boy has gone to bed, a larger firetruck – the one that carries his father and his uncle, the same one that carried his grandfather – passes somewhere along the highway, its crimson glow disappearing into the night.