Central Valley Journalism Collaborative
A section of Highway 140 near Gustine is now immortalized with the name of a fallen hero of Merced County.
Friends and family members of Paul Vincent Rotondaro gathered at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge on Monday, where they unveiled a freeway sign dedicated in honor of the late Cal Fire fireman.
The area of Highway 140 near the refuge is now designated as the “Paul Vincent Rotondaro Highway.” The 36-year-old Merced native and father of two was killed on Oct. 2, 2019, in a head-on collision while driving to another fire station.
The highway was named in honor of Rotondaro after then-state Assemblyman Adam Gray, with support of the firefighter’s friends and family members, spearheaded legislation for the effort.
“We were able to push this through and enable this celebration today that will serve not just to recognize Paul’s contributions today, but to recognize Paul’s contributions forever, and the contributions of those folks in our community that put their lives on the line and make the greatest sacrifices for all of us,” Gray told the gathering.
Jennifer Rotondaro, Paul’s wife, was joined at the event by their children, Kiersten, 17, and Wyatt, 5. She said it was wonderful to see the high turnout at the ceremony and the number of lives he touched.
He received multiple awards and recognitions during his life, including Merced County Firefighter of the Year in 2018.
“He loved going out to the scene and just helping everyone,” said Jennifer, 44.
She told a story about how her husband once responded to a fire at a Mexican restaurant, helping save the business. The owner was so thankful, he gave Paul free tacos. On another occasion, Paul saved a woman from committing suicide. “And so we would hear stories about that, about how he saved people, and it’s amazing,” Jennifer said.
Gustine Fire Chief Pat Borelli also spoke highly of Rotondaro’s skills. He told of how Rotondaro successfully applied for a grant to purchase a new fire engine. The department learned it had been approved on Sept. 11, 2019. Just one month later, he was killed in the crash.
Borelli said when firefighters drive by the location where the crash happened, they always think about his loss.
“The memory of that day is etched in our minds forever,” Borelli said. “These signs that were made especially for the memory of Paul will be a tribute to (his) life.”
According to his obituary on Cal Fire’s website, Rotondaro grew up in Merced and was known as an outstanding offensive lineman while on Golden Valley High’s football team. He graduated from Merced College with an associate of science degree in fire science.
His career with Cal Fire began in 2006 at the Ahwahnee Fire Station in the Madera-Mariposa-Merced unit. He rose through the ranks, becoming a fire captain in 2016 and excelled in many roles over the years, including participating in the Type 1 Hazardous Materials team, Incident Management Team 3 in the Finance Section, and the Merced County Type 2 Rescue team.
He also oversaw radio technology issues for the entire Merced County Fire Department and served as part of the aircraft rescue and firefighting team at Castle Airport, according to the obituary.
— Victor A. Patton is the community engagement editor for the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced.