Burned firefighter in West Fire tells of harrowing encounter

Posted at 10:26 PM, Jul 07, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-08 01:26:33-04

ALPINE (KGTV) - A firefighter burned while battling the West Fire has 32 years under his belt. He says this was the first fire that caught him.

Friday afternoon Mike Vacio got the call at the Alpine Fire Station and took note of the weather conditions, thinking this fire will be tough to put out.

"I'm surprised we didn't drop more people yesterday because of the heat and the humidity," Vacio said, referring to the firefighters who needed to be rescued, suffering heat exhaustion and fatigue.

As the fire raged, it hopscotched through the neighborhood, frustrating firefighters.

"When a house is lost it's always a tragedy because there's somebody that lives in this house, it's their life, they've probably lived there for 25 years. And it's an absolute tragedy, and we feel as firefighters that we kind of failed these people," Vacio said.

He said homes that have defensible space are those they are most focused on saving.

In the middle of the fight, Vacio noticed his team was in danger, "I was monitoring what was going on in the front of the fire truck, I was trying to make an access of getting the fire put out." He said a wall of flames ignited on both sides of them, the heat so intense it melted the headlights of their brand new fire engine.

He said that's when the fire got them, and him the worst, blistering and burning his ears and neck. He said his focus was getting his crew to safety. They jumped into the engine and headed to safety.

Once there, he kept working the fire, "the burns really weren't that bad, at that point it's about putting the fire out."

He started noticing signs of heat exhaustion, and a "fire captain from San Miguel said hey you know, sit down, let me have a look at you. He said, nope you're done." He insisted he was okay, but the captain wouldn't hear it. He agrees now it was a good call.

He went to the burn center at UCSD and describes the pain as a "sunburn on steroids."

His wife got the call she's always dreaded, using that moment to talk with their children, "what your dad does is not like any other person. He's brave, he's strong, and I'm very lucky to be with him." She says she believes in him, his ability to do his job well, and God to keep him safe.

Alpine residents also call the firefighters who fought the West Fire, heroes. They posted signs near the entrance of I-8 reading, "Alpine loves our firefighters," and "Thank you Heroes Alpine loves you."

"I mean that from the community, that means so much to us," Vacio said. 

Saturday he was home resting, surrounded by friends and family, flocking there to provide support. If he had his wish, Vacio would be out in the engine tomorrow, but he has a follow-up appointment with the burn center Thursday. He's hoping to be cleared for work Friday.

Vacio became a firefighter after watching his neighbor help people. He was inspired to follow the same career path.