Above: After attending Central New Mexico Community College, Vandee Silva began working as a regional emergency dispatcher and volunteer firefighter. Photograph by Gabriella Marks.
AROUND 6 P.M. ON APRIL 29, Vandee Silva received a dispatch from the Bluewater Acres Volunteer Fire Department, in Thoreau, about a vehicle fire on NM 612. With all other first responders too far away, the volunteer department’s chief rushed to the scene.
From a half mile away Silva could see the smoke trails drifting through the sunset. The two-vehicle collision had left a pickup truck upside down against a guardrail, the entire cab engulfed in flames.
“I tried to grab my gear,” she recalls, “but I heard someone screaming, ‘Help me!’ ” In barely the time it took her to think, I am not going to let this happen. No one is going to get hurt, Silva had smashed the passenger window and reached her arm into the fire. She couldn’t see, but when she grasped a hand, something told her to pull. She dragged the driver, a middle-aged man, as far as she could from the wreckage. He was badly injured, but she’d almost certainly saved his life.
A Gallup native, Silva was practically raised to be a first responder. For nearly 50 years, her father, Jacob Campos, served as chief of the Bluewater Acres Volunteer Fire Department. As a teenager, she would join him on calls for house fires. “He risked everything he had for someone else,” she says.
After attending Central New Mexico Community College, in Albuquerque, Silva returned to her roots and began working as a regional emergency dispatcher and volunteer firefighter. In 2019, as Campos neared retirement, he asked if she would like to serve as chief. “I was always worried about what was going on with the fire department,” she says, “what the next steps were in the firefighting area.”
As an initial goal, Silva set out to improve Bluewater’s ISO rating (from the Insurance Services Office), which measures a district’s preparedness to fight fires and helps determine its ability to get additional state funding. When she took over, Bluewater’s ISO score sat at a disappointing 9 on a scale of 1 to 10—where 10 is a failing score. After two years of work improving Bluewater’s fire protections and filing the corresponding paperwork, Silva improved the department’s rating to a 4 and nearly tripled the funding. No fire department in the state had ever seen that much success in such a short time.
When covid-19 halted in-person training for volunteer firefighters, Silva helped transition training materials for new recruits to the web and committed to keeping the volunteer group connected.
In September, Silva received the Medal of Valor from McKinley County—the first time the county had ever bestowed that honor—for her heroic actions in April. “First responders do crazy acts every day to save lives,” says Thomas Silva, her husband and Bluewater’s deputy fire chief. “But most will not be considered for a Medal of Valor.”
Since the accident, Silva has been in contact with the man’s family. While he remains hospitalized and continues to recover from his injuries, the outcome could have been far worse if Silva had hesitated. “She is the most good-willed person I have ever known,” says Thomas.