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 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.