CARLSBAD -- The Eddy County Commission took swift action Tuesday after Monday's walkout of eight of the eleven Eddy County volunteer fire department chiefs during the Eddy County Fire Board and Fire Chiefs Association meeting.
The commission, in a 3-2 vote, ordered the removal of Malaga Fire Chief Raymond Rios from his post and to recover all assets of the department. The fire department was the instigator of the walkout after the department's assistant fire chief Roy Burkham announced his department's personnel were taking a leave of absence.
Voting in favor of the action were Commissioners Jack Volpato, Susan Crockett and Royce Pearson. Commissioners Tony Hernandez and Glenn Collier casting the dissenting votes.
Immediately after the closed session and the commission's announcement, the sheriff's department, county road department representatives, county's fire coordinator Robert Brader and County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Joel Arnwine arrived to lockdown the firehouse and seize its records and drugs stored in the ambulance.
The three commissioners who voted to shutter the fire department said they consider Burkham's stated leave of absence as a resignation from the department.
When the fire board meeting was called to order Monday night, Burkham read a prepared statement to county officials, who serve on the fire board, announcing his department's leave of absence.
"It is obvious by the presence of Joel Arnwine (county emergency management coordinator and fire director) at this fire board meeting, the county commissioners and county manager have ignored our repeated request to remove Joel from the fire service due to irreconcilable differences between the fire department and him." Burkham said.
"When the county commissioners and county manager come to a suitable conclusion, we will gladly return to our volunteer duties. It is with great consideration by the members and our prayers that no one in the county suffer any adverse reactions from our choice in this matter."
Commissioner Tony Hernandez, who lives in Malaga and is a non-active member of the fire department, said he believes the commission's action was premature.
"We, the leaders of this government have to make every effort to salvage as many firemen and firewomen or order to provide the necessary service for the Malaga community," Hernandez said. "I also differ with fellow commissioners over the resignation issue. A leave of absence does not mean resignation."
He said most of Malaga's fire department volunteers have been with the department since the inception of fire district and he cannot support their removal.
"They and the other fire districts didn't get the attention from the commission that they wanted. They did try to communicate what they want (removal of Arnwine), but that's not going to happen," Hernandez said. "We need to continue a dialogue to get the result everyone can live with. Although I understand the action taken by my fellow commissioners, it's (Malaga) our community, and we need to support each other the best we can."
Commissioner Susan Crockett, who serves on the fire board and was at Monday's meeting, said fire and emergency services in the active Malaga area won't be interrupted.
"Eddy County has many dedicated volunteers that will step up in this time of need for the residents, oilfield activity and commuters in and around Malaga," she said.
Fire Board Meeting
Following Monday's meeting, fire chiefs in telephone interviews told the Current-Argus although they walked out in support of Malaga Fire Department's stance, they and their firefighters will stay at their posts, for now.
"The county is still covered," said Joel Fire Chief Robin Williams.
La Huerta and Otis volunteers fire departments did not join in the walkout. Cottonwood Fire Department was not represented at the meeting because of the fire chief's schedule conflict.