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Firefighters dedicate memorial to Utah battalion chief killed in 2018 Ranch fire

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High above the Eel River on Tuesday, volunteer firefighters were hard at work on a solemn task — placing a memorial cross to honor the Utah battalion chief who died last year fighting California’s largest-ever wildfire burning in Lake and Mendocino counties.

“Matthew Burchett came out to help us in our time of need. He lost his life, fighting our fire,” said Lake Pillsbury Firefighter Tom Merriott. “It was just our way of honoring a fallen brother.”

The white cross with Burchett’s name and photo was set into the ground on an Elk Mountain Road overlook, an airy site chosen because it is within eyeshot of the rugged patch of wildland where the 42‑year‑old veteran firefighter died.

On Tuesday, the view offered a wide expanse of blue sky, with distant hillsides cloaked in forest — a sharp contrast to last year, when the region was blanketed by thick brown smoke, the skies busy with air tankers and helicopters, and the ground crawling with fire engines, bulldozers and hand crews.

Tuesday was the one‑year anniversary of Burchett’s death, and about two dozen people from local fire agencies gathered for an emotional ceremony, which included the setting of the cross, reading of the firefighter’s prayer and the ringing of a bell to mark the sacrifice of a man who died doing a job he loved.

“As a group we just didn’t want Matthew to be forgotten. We wanted his family to know we’re not going to forget and people are going to go up that road and they’re not going to forget,” said Mark Linn, another Lake Pillsbury volunteer.

As part of the ceremony, participating agencies each offered a department shoulder patch to nail to the cross, representing Lake Pillsbury, Northshore Fire, Ukiah Valley and Cal Fire. That moment stood out, even on an already somber morning, said Linn.

“It was really touching when Cal Fire got there,” he said. “They realized they forgot one of their patches and one of their guys tore the patch off his shirt.”

Burchett was a 20‑year firefighter in the Salt Lake Valley but had been hired as a battalion chief for the nearby, newly formed Draper City Fire Department a few months before the massive Ranch fire broke out. He came to California leading a task force of five Utah fire crews and engines, joining thousands of firefighters from across the nation in a battle against a pair of blazes that erupted the same day last July and became known as the Mendocino Complex.

The larger inferno, the Ranch fire, started near Potter Valley and raged for weeks, menacing communities on Clear Lake’s north shore as it burned across 410,000 acres in four counties. It wasn’t fully contained until mid-September. Nearby, the River fire burned 50,000 acres, threatening communities on the lake’s west shore before it was fully contained in mid-August.

Burchett’s team was assigned to the Lake Pillsbury area as the Ranch fire pressed hard toward the reservoir, threatening homes and summer cabins. While working downstream of Lake Pillsbury’s Scott Dam, in the Benmoore Creek drainage, Burchett was hit by falling tree debris after a tanker dropped thousands of gallons of fire retardant on the area. Three others were injured.

Burchett was the first of two fatalities in the Mendocino Complex fires. Jeremy Lee Appleyard, of Oroville, was working on cleanup in the Ranch fire burn zone when he was killed in a vehicle crash.

Burchett is survived by his wife and a son who was 7 at the time. His longtime firefighting passion was battling wildland blazes, and he’d been proud to represent his Utah department on the California fire, said longtime friend and boss, Draper City Fire Chief Clint Smith.

Tuesday had been a somber day as well for the Draper department, but firefighters there appreciated knowing their peers so far away, who didn’t know Burchett, had created the memorial.

“We were very humbled by their effort to remember Matt and remember the great sacrifice, which he made while trying to assist down there,” Smith said.

He was notified by the Lake Pillsbury crew beforehand of their plans. “I was sad I couldn’t be there in person, to show our support,” Smith said. “But I will make it to that point, to visit that monument. It’ll be quite an incredible feeling, standing there and being there in the area where Matt gave that ultimate sacrifice.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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