Firefighter who died battling Mendocino Complex fires mourned by Utah town
The American flag flew at half-staff Tuesday at the Lake Pillsbury fire department’s Station 1, near where a Utah firefighter died battling a mammoth blaze that for nearly three weeks has terrorized communities across several counties.
The death of Matthew Burchett - a 42-year-old battalion chief with the Draper Fire Department, just south of Salt Lake City - was felt deeply by Lake Pillsbury residents and homeowners, whose homes are being threatened by the Ranch fire, the largest wildfire in California history.
“We’re sad that it happened in our backyard,” said Brian Schmitt, president of the Lake Pillsbury Ranch property owners association. “He came here to try to save the national forest, protect lives and property.”
But Schmitt said “many tears” are being shed in Lake Pillsbury, even as the fire continues its northward march.
“We give our best wishes and prayers to his family and loved ones,” Schmitt said. “In something tragic like this, we would give up all of these homes for that one human life.”
Almost 800 miles away, in the city of Draper, fire officials and residents mourned Burchett’s death. Burchett, who came to California on Aug. 2., was one of five firefighters the agency sent to battle the Northern California blazes, Draper Mayor Troy Walker said during a news conference posted online by the Salt Lake City-based news station KUTV.
“It’s tough any time we lose a brother. It’s hard,” Draper City Fire Department Battalion Chief Bart Vawdrey said during Tuesday’s recorded press conference. “This will be felt across the country.”
Burchett was battling flames downstream of Lake Pillsbury’s Scott Dam when he was hit by a falling tree, said Todd Derum, Cal Fire Division Chief for Sonoma County. Three others from Kings County, near Fresno, also were injured, he said. The Lake Pillsbury section of the fire includes some of the toughest current firefights.
Cal Fire officials would not release any information about the accident.
Burchett and a Utah crew were working alongside a Cal Fire strike team of firefighters from Sonoma, Lake and Napa counties, who rushed to cut away the tree and render medical aid, Derum said. Burchett was hired to oversee the agency’s wildland program in May after 20 years with the Unified Fire Authority, the state’s largest fire agency. He was regarded as an expert in wildland firefighting, Vawdrey said.
Burchett leaves behind a wife and a young son. Gov. Jerry Brown ordered the state Capitol’s flags to be flown at half-staff in Burchett’s honor on Tuesday.
“Our hearts ache for his wife and young son, family members, loved ones, colleagues with the Draper City Fire Department and the entire state of Utah,” Brown said in a statement.
The Ranch fire, the larger of the two fires known as the Mendocino Complex fires, continued to expand Monday night into Tuesday, growing to 305,990 acres by Tuesday evening. At 64 percent containment, it continued its push north into the Mendocino National Forest.
Along with the fully contained River fire, both fires have torched ?354,910 acres and are 64 percent contained, Cal Fire said Tuesday evening. The area’s thick vegetation and mountainous terrain remains an ongoing hurdle for crews on the ground, officials said.
Cal Fire said that on the northwest and northeast edges of the Ranch fire, crews spent the day constructing control lines for firing operations in the coming days.
Bulldozers worked to strengthen lines along the area’s Gilmore Ridge, moving north through the 2012 Mill fire scar toward Davis Flat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Construction of new containment lines along Cabbage Patch, Bushy Camp and the Noel Ridges areas will continue, the agency said Tuesday.
The Lake Pillsbury area in Lake County and Stonyford community in Colusa County also were a priority, Cal Fire said.
Some Lake Pillsbury residents who have remained despite a mandatory evacuation described a valiant effort by firefighters to protect structures, vacation cabins and homes, as well as permanent residences.
Joshua Stone, who lives at Lake Pillsbury Ranch, on the north end of the lake, said many of the firefighters he talked to Tuesday seemed heartbroken by Burchett’s death. But he said the fatal accident has not deterred their efforts.
“It has not changed the drive of the firefighters, at least,” he said. “They actually seem almost more determined to stop the progress of the fire.”
Stone, who manages the Lake Pillsbury Resort on the west side of the lake, said fire crews have been cutting bulldozer lines all the way from Scott Dam all the way to Soda Creek Store on Elk Mountain Road. He said he a team of firefighters from New Zealand were at the resort installing sprinklers around the most critical protection areas of the resort, including the marina, fuel tanks, main office and store.
The resort is just north of the Scott Dam and the Eel River. As of Tuesday evening, the fire remained on the south side of the dam and river. On Monday, firefighters worked aggressively to save homes in the Rice Fork Summer Homes community, he said.
Stone said he’s talked to three people whose cabins in Rice Fork Summer Homes community were destroyed by fire.
Stone has been relaying information to evacuees and longtime Lake Pillsbury vacationers through his Facebook page, Lake Pillsbury News. He said he and his wife have been hosting at the resort fire-weary firefighters, many of whom have been working 24-hour shifts.
“We have crews that come in here for 24 hours straight,” he said. “They do everything from chainsawing down brush to ‘limbing up’ trees to being on the fire line. Most are doing structure protection.”
On Tuesday, the Glenn County Sheriff’s Office issued mandatory evacuations orders for the Pleasant Valley area of the Mendocino National Forest, located in the southwest portion of the county, on Tuesday afternoon.
Other mandatory evacuations remained in place for areas near the Lake-Mendocino and Lake-Colusa county lines, Cal Fire said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213.