When a firefighter gets an assignment, he or she often leaves behind a family who keeps the home fires burning in a good way. Such is the case with Erin and Michael Capuchino of Oakhurst.
Both in their thirties, Erin and Michael have been married since 2002; for the last three years, Michael has been a wildland firefighter. The Capuchinos have three kids: Sirene, 12, Layla, 10, and Charlie, 4.
Michael just returned from being away for two weeks on the Sand Fire in the Angeles National Forest, and then re-routing to the Goose Fire burning in Prather.
In the middle of the season during the week that school starts, we caught up with Erin, still a relatively new fire spouse, to see how they make it all work.
My husband Michael Capuchino is a GS4 Forestry Tec, or Wildland Firefighter. He is on Engine 314 out of the Westfall Station on Highway 41. This is his third year. He worked his first season at the Tanker Base in Clovis, then was on E312 out in Jerseydale last year.
I work from home as an independent contractor for HelmsBriscoe, as a meeting space and hotel room broker, and also at Starbucks in Oakhurst. We are all called Baristas, but I’m now the “early morning drive-through girl.” Both positions are part time. We decided together it was a good move to work from home so when Michael is gone for up to two weeks on a strike team, we had someone around all the time.
He got started as a firefighter later in life than most. After years of searching for a passion, he began applying every season. It took five years to get in, and I supported him 110 percent. He is now 35 and has two more years to become a permanent employee with full retirement at age 57, when they make you retire from active firefighting.
Here is what the US Dept. of Agriculture Forest Service Division says he does:
These positions are temporary and have a Not-to-Exceed date. However, an extension of the appointment may be possible without further competition. The appointment may also end early due to lack of work or funds. This is a standard wildland fire management position description intended for use in the USDA, Forest Service. The position is located on a fire crew as a crew member within the fire management organization. The purpose of these positions are wildland fire suppression/management/control, as a firefighter on an engine, hotshot, helitack or hand crew. Other wildland fire related duties might involve fire prevention, patrol, detection, or prescribed burning. The incumbent will also be involved with the maintenance and repair of firefighting tools equipment and facilities, and will receive firefighting training.
Michael was miserable working where he was before he was a firefighter, and he always had loved working outside; he loved dropping trees, and felt that he could actually make a difference with this career.
He has supported me in all my crazy jobs and I knew this would make him happiest. As I am super co-dependent I was very worried but knew that God would help.
It’s hard when he is somewhere that has no cell service to check in, but I think, only 15 years ago that wasn’t even really an option. So I tell myself it’s okay. There is always a fear of what can happen.
The recent seasons have been very active and there have been some major burn-overs and a wind change can cause many issues. So there is always that fear but I don’t think about it. There are some nasty days for the kids when they miss Daddy most, or when Charlie screams for Daddy because he doesn’t want to listen to me.
The best part is that my husband is in great shape and he is happy.
After the Junction and Courtney Fires in 2014 — he was stationed at the Tanker Base for those — people would notice his crew shirt and ask him questions and offer their thanks.
This made him so humble and proud. He may have been parking the tankers and helping them refuel but his actions helped save homes and lives.
No matter where we go now, if he has a crew shirt on and we are within 50 miles of a forest someone will ask him something about the season, fires, predictions or bug kill and what that is going to do for the coming year. It makes me smile when I see that.
Our relationship began in high school, and continued as a long distance relationship. With the many changes we have had, we just make the homecomings even sweeter. I try my hardest to get the house spotless and get a bit gussied up for him. With my recurring depression there are bad times and good times. My kids make it worth it.
I could not survive this adventure without my amazing friends and their husbands who help fix floods and broken doors and other household catastrophes that may occur while Michael is away, and my awesome in-laws who help in any way they can.
We try to stay busy and I listen to the scanners if I can, to try to keep an ear out. Some wives won’t do that but for me, it’s like a connection. We are listening to the same thing at the same time.
I have also found a group of ladies called Spouses and Partners of Wildland Firefighters. They are the best support and you can ask a silly question, rant about how much he’s driving you nuts in February and joke “is it season yet?” or whine about how much you miss him.
We have come together to support women whose husbands have been killed or injured in action and we support the Wildland Fire Fighter Foundation, a nonprofit for which I created a Hootenanny fundraiser last year.
These guys and women are working their butts off and they only become appreciated on days when we have recently had a close fire.
These folks give their lives, time, families and bodies for little base pay, but they love it.
I am so proud of my wildland firefighter! He worked hard to get in and has been working even harder to be the best he can. He is my rock, and I can’t imagine a life without him and our amazing kids.
This is the first in a series of stories about firefighters and families.
Kellie Flanagan is the Managing Editor of Sierra News Online.