The State Worker

Merced fire captain one of 2 dead in Merced County crash, Cal Fire confirms

Two people, including a Merced County Cal Fire fire captain, died in a traffic crash on Highway 140 near the Gustine airport, according to California Highway Patrol.

The firefighter was identified by Cal Fire as Fire Capt. Paul Rotondaro.

CHP Los Banos officers at about 7 a.m. Wednesday responded to the collision on Highway 140, west of Old Santa Fe Grade, east of the Gustine airport, according to CHP.

A Dodge Ram pickup truck driven by a man in his mid-30s was traveling west on Highway 140 behind a Ford Crown Victoria sedan, CHP Los Banos Officer Shannon Stiers said.

The Dodge driver tried passing the Ford Crown Victoria in a broken yellow line passing zone on the two-lane road, Stiers said. But the Dodge slammed head-on into a Ford Ranger heading east on Highway 140.

The Dodge overturned and ended up south of the roadway, Stiers said, while the Ford Ranger spun out and stopped in the westbound lane of traffic before catching fire.

Rotondaro, who was on-duty, was the driver of the Ford Ranger, Stiers said. Both drivers were pronounced dead at the scene.

The identity of the other driver was not released Wednesday.

The Ford Crown Victoria also sustained damage from the collision. But the male driver and female passenger of the vehicle declined treatment for minor injuries.

The collision caused traffic to back up on Highway 140 and Highway 33 as lanes were closed.

Merced County Cal Fire Captain Paul Rotondaro, right, poses with Cal Fire Chief Jeremy Rahn, left and another individual in this undated photo shared by the Merced County Office of Emergency Services with a message honoring Rotondaro’s service following news he was killed Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in a head-on vehicle collision. Courtesy Merced County Office of Emergency Services

Rotondaro started his Merced County firefighting career in 2006. He was selected as the 2018 Merced County Firefighter of the Year, according to the Merced County Office of Emergency Services.

Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement honoring Rotondaro, calling him “a man who dedicated his life to protecting his fellow Californians. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife and children, family, friends, and colleagues. His contribution to his community will not be forgotten.”

Rotondaro left behind a wife, Jennifer, 13-year-old daughter Kiersten and 16-month-old son Wyatt, McLean said.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.