Wendy Alexander/Madera Tribune File Photo
Firefighters battle a blaze at a home in Madera.
After one of the worst wildfire seasons in recent history, Cal Fire Captain Randall Cooper is looking forward to retiring.
He has spent more than four decades fighting fires. The 61-year-old Madera resident left high school and joined the U.S. Marines Corps at 17 in 1973.
“Vietnam (War) was winding down so I spent two years as a mortar-man from the First Marine Brigade stationed in Honolulu,” Cooper said. “It was a bad time to be in the military.”
He was on a plane bound for Saigon when it fell and they turned the plane back, he said. He spent his last two years at Camp Pendleton in California.
His early training in fire fighting began in 1971 as a member of a high school Explorer Post, a program similar to Boy Scouts, based at City Fire Station 1 on Lake Street.
After four years in the Marines, he came home to Madera and stopped by his old fire station to apply to be a volunteer fireman in 1977.
The California Employment Development Department administered the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program funding training and staff for public service jobs. Cooper worked for the city fire department for 11 months until funding for the program ran out, he said.
He then tested for a job with the Coalinga Fire Department. He worked there for a couple of months when a permanent job in Madera opened up. He came back March 12, 1977, where he has been ever since, he said. His present assignment is at Station 7 on Schnoor Avenue.
Later that year, he married the former Penny Simpson on Oct. 16, 1977. They have two adult children, son Wayne and his wife Amber have two sons, Cole is 8 and Chance is 4. Their daughter Crystal Cooper has an 11-year-old daughter, Lilly.
For 18 years Wayne served in the Marines, which included deployments twice to Iraq and one to Afghanistan. Crystal has worked for many years at Air Treatment with cooling tower components from Baltimore Aircoil.
Captain Cooper has put out fires from Oregon to Mexico. During fire season it is not uncommon for a firefighter to work 21 days straight, which is the maximum limit allowed, he said.
During his career, he and another fireman helped deliver a baby born in a pick-up truck in a rain storm.
“I basically just caught the baby, didn’t drop him, wrapped him up and cut the cord,” he said.
These are skills he learned when he worked part-time for 15 years as an Emergency Medical Technician 2 for Pistoresi Ambulance in the 1980s.
While working for the city fire department, his mentors who helped guide Cooper through his early career included captains Kenny Rollins, Al Mayorga and Marvin Giddings. He also has great fondness and respect for his Cal Fire Battalion Chief Jimbo Forga, who manages the city fire crews. Engineer Scott Farrell has 30 years on the job and joined the department after being in the Explorer Post Cooper led in 1978.
Cooper served 16 years as a city firefighter until Cal Fire took over in May 1993.
“A big part of our job is to create calm and order out of chaos,” Cooper said. “And make sure me and all my guys get home safe.”
The burden on the family of all first responders is huge, Cooper said. The support of his wife and children has been essential to his success. He missed a lot of family time through the years while helping save the lives of total strangers. He is truly blessed with a wife who has stood by his side and he couldn’t be prouder of his children, he said.
“They never complained really because they knew how important the work is” said Cooper. “They are my rock.”
A plaque on his wall sums up his philosophy about his years on the job. The poster bears a picture of a fireman holding a child in front of a burning house. It bears a quote from Stephen Grellet, a Quaker missionary (1773-1855.)
“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
The poster is decoupaged on a grape tray from the 1970s.
“Madera has a good crew of firefighters and I am looking forward to the next chapter,” Cooper said.