Report: Utah firefighter died after fire retardant drop

Firegfighters carry the casket of Battalion Chief Matt Burchett of the Draper Fire Department into the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah, for his funeral on Aug. 20, 2018. | Photo by Ravell Call/The Deseret News via Associated Press, St. George News

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A Utah firefighter died last week from falling tree debris after thousands of gallons of retardant were dropped on the area where he was helping battle California’s largest-ever wildfire, according to a preliminary report from investigators.

The summary report by California fire officials says Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was struck by debris on Aug. 13 at the Mendocino Complex Fire. Three other firefighters had minor injuries.

Funeral services for the 42-year-old Burchett were held Monday in West Valley City. He is survived by a wife and 7-year-old son.

In this file photo, Utah firefighter Matt Burchett, 42, who died fighting a wildfire in California, is honored by a detail along Murray Parkway on Aug. 15, 2018, as his body is returned home, traveling along Interstate 215 after being flown to the Utah Air National Guard in Salt Lake City, Utah. | File photo by Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune via Associated Press, St. George News

The two-paragraph summary calls for an immediate corrective action, saying firefighters must remain clear of areas with overhead hazards during a retardant drop.

“Those are just kind of reminders on there, anything that firefighters can do to stay safe,” said Jonathan Cox, a spokesman for California’s firefighting agency. “We try to be very conscious, anytime a tanker is dropping, about our surroundings.”

He and another spokesman, Paul Grenier, said they couldn’t provide more details because the investigation is continuing. That includes disclosing the type of aircraft involved, why the four firefighters were underneath, or even if all four firefighters were from the same unit.

Cliff Allen, president of the union representing state wildland firefighters, said he understood investigators were still conducting interviews, but said fire supervisors should have made sure the firefighters were well clear of the drop zone.

“Operations will contact air attack and say ‘We want to concentrate drops in this area of the fire,'” he said. “It’s the job between air attack and operations to make sure the area is clear of personnel or that it’s clearly marked where personnel are on the ground.”

There also could have been a radio miscommunication or the crew may not have heard or chose to ignore the radio warning, he said, though that’s part of what’s being investigated.

He cautioned that it’s not clear from the preliminary report whether the tree was weakened from the fire or from the retardant drop, or if the firefighters were hit by fire retardant slurry, which is a mixture of water, fertilizer and red dye.

“Anytime you’re working in trees, you have trees that are fire weakened, then strong winds or water or retardant drops could potentially cause them to fall and possibly injure folks,” he said. “It’s often referred to as ‘widow makers.'”

Modified DC-10s can drop 12,000 gallons of slurry, 12 times the amount carried by the standard smaller air tanker used by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It can lay a swath of fire retardant as wide as a football field for as long as a mile.

CalFire says the modified 747 can drop 24,000 gallons, double that of the DC-10. It uses a system that can release the slurry under pressure or as gently as falling rain from an altitude as low as 400 feet.
Lead planes guide the huge aircraft, showing them where to go and when to start and stop slurry drops.

Written by DON THOMPSON, Associated Press.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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  • ladybugavenger August 20, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    Condolences to the family.

  • Carpe Diem August 20, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    Loose branches like that are called Widowmakers… for a reason. Unusual for that much debris to fall from one event, to injure so many. I’ve been tagged by retardant, but just mist compared to this. Pine etc branches are usually very resilient, tree must have been weakened / dead. One fire in the Olympics, a faller took one down, it spun and hit him, he was hospitalized. One tree fell toward fighters and they ran, leaving a metal hat. It was flattened. I had a rockfall fly by me at waist level, probably 50 baseball + size rocks over 5 seconds. Missed me by less than two feet. It’s a dangerous business. Condolences to the wife and son.

  • Carpe Diem August 20, 2018 at 7:17 pm

    Read it closer and turns out the term widowmaker was in the story. Also noted retardant drops can be a mile long. How in the HECK does a team on the ground know when and where a drop is going to land and when. “Ignored radio” yeah, because they will probably say something like “Climb 1000 feet up that mountain”, I tell you, even a pilot wont know the exact trajectory until he hits the drop button. Watch enough drops, half seem way out of whack of where you would expect them to go. pfft

  • Larry August 21, 2018 at 5:01 am

    Lots of unanswered questions. And it will take a while to sort out and I hope it will not be covered up because of the embarrassment of this being a “friendly fire” incident. We might even find out the retardent was ordered to be dropped because these firefighters were trapped by the fire and this was intended to be a life saving move.

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