‘I’m going back’: Fire captain injured defending Alpine shares his story

ALPINE, Calif. -- An Alpine fire captain who was injured in the West Fire is sharing his story.

Captain Mike Vacio has been fighting fires, defending homes and saving lives for nearly 29 years.

“I enjoy helping people," Vacio told FOX 5. "I see the benefits of helping people. I see people in their worst and I see people in their best, and in between -- and it’s gratifying. I can’t tell you how nice it is to work in Alpine because we get so much support from the community."

The small department was one of the first on the scene when the West Fire broke out around 11:30 Friday morning.

“Right off the get-go, we encountered heavy fire with winds and (110-degree) temperatures with nine-percent humidity -- so we knew we had a battle,” Vacio said.

It was so hot that early on in the fight, Vacio's ears started burning. “We were right down the middle of Alpine Boulevard, so it was radiated heat from both sides. We never actually had flame impingement -- It was just radiated heat,” the captain explained.

But Vacio pushed through the pain and traveled ahead to the Alpine Oaks mobile home park, where he made sure people got out of their homes safely. That's about the time the heat and smoke overcame him.

“I knelt down, told one of the captains, 'I don’t feel good,' and he looked at me and said, ‘You know what? I probably need to get you transported,’” Vacio said.

“It’s a wife’s worst nightmare,” his wife, Clare, told FOX 5. Clare shared how she felt getting the phone call abut her husband's status: “I was completely in shock, and at that point I knew I had to be strong. I had to get there and put on the firefighter-wife cap that I never wanted to put on."

Thinking back on the images of her husband of 24 years in the hospital is still hard. “When I saw him, he was shaking very hard because his body temperature was so high that they were trying to cool him down with ice packs,” Clare said.

Knowing heat exhaustion can be deadly, Clare said she hoped and prayed for the best. She was overcome with joy when the father of her two sons pulled through.

“It’s because of God. It wasn’t Mike’s time and I was up all night Friday night thanking God,” Clare said.

Vacio said he has to go back to the doctor on Thursday and is hoping to get cleared to go back to work. “I love my job so much. I’m going back,” Vacio said without doubt.

The captain told FOX 5 that another Alpine firefighter suffered burns to his face, but he is okay. Another firefighter also suffered from heat-related illness during the battle. Cal Fire says that firefighter is also alright.