Michael Scarpato’s firefighting career began in high school. The junior firefighter signed up for the local department during his senior year.
After graduation, Michael was all set to join the Navy, but changed his mind at the last minute. He realized he had “fallen in love” with fighting fires.
Flash forward five years and Michael is still dedicated to the field, working part time for the State of New Jersey Forest Service and for contracting companies for the fire industry.
When the Thomas fire began in December 2017—a powerful wildfire that affected Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, California—Michael was asked if he could go. He didn’t hesitate. He cancelled his plans, packed a bag and was on a plane the next day.
For 14 days straight, Michael fought the forest fires. He joined a group of more than 8,000 firefighters from around the country, each of them putting in 12- to 16-hour workdays in order to keep the devastation as minimal as possible.
Michael worked on structure protection, surveying properties like houses and businesses before the fire got to them and then suppressed the fire as much as possible when it spread to that area. He worked on 150 houses and out of those, four were lost.
He and the other firefighters were battling 80 mph winds and 100-foot flames that engulfed 80,000 acres in just one day.
“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “I was just shocked and concerned with how we were going to help all of those people. I kept thinking, ‘What’s next? What’s the game plan?’ In work like this, you always want to know you did everything you could to help the people affected.”
At 21 years old, Michael feels privileged to be able to help in this situation and to be in the position where he can drop whatever he is doing to answer a call.
“I get to travel, do what I love and help people. I couldn’t ask for more,” he said. “Any way you look at it, it’s rewarding.”
In his education and his career, Michael always answers the call. He does what is required and works toward the best possible outcome.
While in California, after his demanding work day, Michael still found time to work on his studies. He is working toward his bachelor’s degree in fire science and is striving to have it completed by February 2019. Once his degree is complete, he hopes to work for the New Jersey Forest Service full time.
“It’s a mindset,” said Michael. “You just do what you need to do to get it done and reach your goal.”