Calif. county highway memorial honors fallen CAL FIRE firefighter
Family, friends and colleagues were on hand to witness the dedication of the Paul Vincent Rotondaro Memorial Highway
By Andrew Kuhn
Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)
MERCED COUNTY, Calif. — A stretch of Highway 140 in Merced County has been dedicated to the memory of a Merced County firefighter who died on duty in 2019.
A ceremony was held Monday near Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge to unveil the sign designating a section of Highway 140 near Gustine as the Paul Vincent Rotondaro Memorial Highway.
Rotondaro graduated from Golden Valley High School before eventually graduating from Merced College with an Associate of Science degree in Fire Science and was working toward a bachelor’s degree.
According to the County of Merced, Rotondaro began his public service career in 2006 as a Firefighter 1 at the Ahwahnee Fire Station with the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit of Cal Fire. During his time with the Merced Division of Cal Fire, Rotondaro was promoted to Firefighter II in 2011 and LT Fire Apparatus Engineer in 2012.
In 2015, Rotondaro transferred to the Riverside Unit of Cal Fire as a permanent Fire Apparatus Engineer before returning to the Madera-Mariposa-Merced Unit in 2016 as a Fire Captain shortly after. Rotondaro was a member of the Type 1 Hazardous Materials team in Merced, the Cal Fire Incident Management Team 3 and the Merced County Type 2 Rescue team as well as overseeing radio technology for the Merced County Fire Department and serving as part of an aircraft firefighting and rescue team at Castle Airport, according to the county.
Rotondaro was killed in a head-on collision while on duty with Cal Fire on Oct. 2, 2019.
Rotondaro’s mother, Toni McMillin, said during the ceremony that when she asked Paul’s siblings to describe him, they used words and phrases such as admirable, reliable, young at heart and affable. According to McMillin, Rotondaro was tech savvy and could fix almost anything. She recalled how Rotondaro helped with things such as setting up her Wifi connection and a time he set a photo of his smiling face as her iPad wallpaper, which she discovered after he had left.
Rotondaro liked the outdoors, and during his free time he enjoyed camping, going to sand dunes with family and playing with multiple engine-powered toys.
“We’ll never stop missing him,” said McMillin. “We’re very blessed to have this moment to honor him.”
Gustine Fire Chief Pat Borrelli said he remembers walking into the fire station to find Rotondaro in a chair pulled up to a television while playing video games, or walking around in shorts and flip-flops. Borrelli said Rotondaro was also good with computers and helped taught the station a lot about them.
“The scar that marks this section of Highway 140 is a constant reminder (of the) impact Paul had on all of us,” said Borrelli, acknowledging the many crosses along the sides of roadways in the Gustine area marking where people have lost their lives.
“When we drive by the scar in the road on Highway 140, the memory of that day is etched in our minds forever,” Borrelli said. “These signs that were made especially for the memory of Paul will be a tribute to Paul’s life.”
Cal Fire Division Chief Mark Pimentel, who at one time served as Rotondaro’s Battalion Chief, shared some of his memories of Rotondaro during the ceremony, making special reference to his smile.
Deputy Chief Chris Trindade, who shared stories of training sessions and making lunch or dinner bets with Rotondaro. Trindade said Rotondaro was competitive, a great firefighter, a great community person and a superb family man.
Former California State Assemblymember Adam Gray, who authored the assembly bill to rename the section of Highway 140 the Paul Rotondaro Memorial Highway, said the ceremony served to recognize not only Rotondaro’s contributions but also others who put their lives on the line and make the greatest sacrifices for the community.
“This dedication really does represent and recognize that significant contribution and sacrifice for Cal Fire Fire Captain Paul Rotondaro, as a sign of his respect and remembrance of his service to this community,” said Denis Agar, District 10 director of the California Department of Transportation. “We also recognize the ultimate sacrifice made by the Rotondaro family,” he said.
Jennifer Rotondaro said it’s amazing to hear so many stories of Paul and how so many people love and remember her late husband, but that the occasion is also sad because it makes her miss him all the more.
Rotondaro said that when the couple met, she was pretty sure it was love at first sight. She said she and Paul got engaged about four months after meeting each other and married about another four months later.
“We just had this amazing love and connection,” said Rotondaro. “He was always kind and he listened and he made us a priority. He made myself and our daughter Kiersten a priority.” Rotondaro said that after a year or two the couple decided to have a baby and named him Wyatt.
“As a husband and father he was ... I can’t set a bar higher for him,” said Rotondaro.
Rotondaro recalled a time when she returned home from work to find Paul gluing small flowers to a straw hat for their daughter so she could dress as the children’s storybook character Amelia Bedelia for a school day celebrating student’s favorite storybook characters.
“So I think things like that are what makes him just such an amazing man.”
A sign dedicating the section of highway to her late husband was in place Monday along Highway 140 near Gustine. Many in attendance wrote messages to Paul on the back of a sign unveiled during the ceremony.
“It makes my heart so full,” Rotondaro said of the highway sign. “So many people will be able to remember him and know who he was.”
(c)2023 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.)