New emergency manager faces challenging start

Mike Mestas has served as operations manager for the Office of Emergency Management for the past eight years

Brett Berntsen
Mike Mestas talks about his role as the new emergency management coordinator for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management on Wednesday at his office in Aztec.

FARMINGTON — With the ongoing Crouch Mesa water crisis and the recent oil storage tank fire near Nageezi, Mike Mestas has had a busy couple of weeks as San Juan County’s new emergency manager.

"At first people were saying it was baptism by water," Mestas said, sitting in his office last week. "But now it’s turned into a trial by fire."

Mestas officially took over as the county’s head crises coordinator early this month, but he has served as operations manager for the Office of Emergency Management for the past eight years. County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said Mestas’ work handling the lengthy boil water advisory affecting Crouch Mesa and the fire that displaced dozens of Nageezi-area residents has shown he’s the right man for the job.

"He’s definitely stepped into the frying pan," Carpenter said. “But he comes very well qualified, and he’s a great communicator.”

Mike Mestas, the new emergency management coordinator for the San Juan County Office of Emergency Management, talks about his job on Wednesday at his office in Aztec.

A former Farmington firefighter and radio operator in the U.S. Navy, Mestas describes himself as a "organization freak" with extensive experience coordinating response teams. He said that while his new position will require him to serve as the office's figurehead, he will remain active in daily operations.

“It’ll be more of the same for me,” Mestas said. “I’m a hands-on guy.”

Mestas replaces longtime Emergency Manager Don Cooper, who was the driving force behind the creation of the OEM in 1993. Cooper said that the office’s initial task was to establish a coordinated radio system linking various agencies across the county.

Over his 23-year career, Cooper also worked closely with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security to provide funding for local programs such as the Farmington Police Department’s bomb squad and SWAT team. Cooper said his proudest accomplishment, however, was involving the private sector in coordination efforts.

“We have an outstanding working relationship with oil and gas industry,” Cooper said.

Former Bloomfield Police Chief Mike Kovacs, left, Bloomfield Mayor Scott Eckstein and San Juan County Emergency Manager Don Cooper talk inside a donated recreation vehicle for the Bloomfield Police Department on Wednesday in Bloomfield.

Mestas pointed to the fire that broke out on Monday at the WPX Energy oil facility as an example of that partnership. While firefighters were battling the blaze, Mestas said OEM was able to contact company officials to shut down equipment and keep the danger from escalating.

Cooper, who is retiring at the age of 70, said that in the early days of the OEM, the most pressing issue was often river flooding during spring runoff. Now, however, the office covers a broad spectrum of issues, from water contamination to active shooter response training.

That extensive reach could explain the OEM’s prominence in the news, dating back to the Bloomfield ditch breach in May and the Gold King Mine spill in August.

“In some places, emergency management doesn’t deal with all those things,” Cooper said. “We do things a little differently.”

Cooper's approach in building the department has gained praise from county officials. Carpenter said the OEM has become a model for other offices across the state. And while Cooper is handing over the reigns, Carpenter said he's confident the office will continue managing crises efficiently and effectively wherever they emerge.

"I'm thrilled by the way issues have been handled lately," he said. “Now, hopefully, things will begin to calm down a bit."

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.