by Marie Edinger
MARIPOSA COUNTY, Calif. (KION-TV)- Over 3,700 firefighters are helping fight the Oak Fire, but one, in particular, has a story to tell.
Captain Raymond LaFontaine, a 74-year-old firefighter for the Monterey Fire Department, has been battling through treacherous conditions to keep Mariposa County safe.
Ray joined the City of Monterey Fire Department in 1973 and could have retired 24 years ago. Instead, he spent the last week on the front lines fighting the Oak Fire.
“I dunno, I still like coming to work,” he told FOX26 News.
Battalion Chief Douglas Dirksen, the Strike Team Leader Ray has been working with on the Oak Fire, called him an inspiration, saying he performs incredibly well on the line.
“He’s keeping up, and he’s passing up the younger folks, including myself,” said Dirksen. So like I said, it’s pretty inspirational. Any time we feel sorry for ourselves and think it’s too hot or too hard, all we have to do is look to our right, and there’s Ray, pushing ahead.”
Ray says he'll retire one day but is waiting for a sign saying it’s time to hang up the hose and boots.
He got both knees replaced in 2018, and most would have taken that as a sign – but not Ray.
“The whole time, they were asking me, ‘Do you want to go back to work, do you want to go back to work?’ So they doubled the physical therapy,” Ray said. “I am wearing them, but what are you going to do? I’m sure they’d like me to sit in the chair longer, but I’m not going to do that!”
Ray still manages to maintain a work and home life balance. He’s got a beautiful family with a son and grandson who are both firefighters now.
Fighting fires is only part of the job for him. Ray and his crew took time Friday to ensure farm animals got water and cleared out dozens of pounds of spoiled, smelly meat before the evacuated homeowner returned.
“It had been there for a week. I actually thought it was a body,” said Ray. “It was a first for me, and I’ve been on a lot of strike teams.”
In 2002, Ray was given a Medal of Valor for risking his life saving an eight-year-old girl.
He also got something called the Chief Parker Award, named after Monterey’s first Fire Chief. Only people who’ve been with the department for 25 years are eligible. Next year, he’ll be eligible for a second one.
Trevor Rackley, who works with Ray, says he greatly respects him.
“Captain LaFontaine is a legend, not just for the City of Monterey Fire Department, but for the County and for fire departments up and down the state,” said Rackley. “Imagine working side by side on a professional sports team with an already-inducted Hall of Famer who just hasn’t retired yet. That’s the best way I can describe it, seriously.”
On March 1st, Ray will have been with the department for 50 years.
FOX26 also talked for a bit with Chief Gaundenz Panholzer. He’s been head of the Monterey Fire Department for nine years but has known Ray longer.
Chief Panholzer said Ray has one of the best attitudes; he says he comes to work always positive and always ready; and the Chief says Ray is a great leader, a great firefighter, and a great asset to the organization.
This article was written with help from FOX26.