A firefighter from Utah was killed last week from falling tree debris after a modified airliner dropped thousands of gallons of flame-suppressing liquid on the area where he was helping battle California’s largest-ever wildfire, according to a preliminary report from investigators obtained by The Associated Press.
Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett was struck by debris on Aug. 13 at the Mendocino Complex Fire, according to the report by California fire officials, while three other firefighters received minor injuries.
Services for the 42-year-old suburban Salt Lake City firefighter were held Monday in Utah. Burchett’s 7-year-old son, Griffin, carried his father’s helmet underneath his arm as he entered the funeral.
The two-paragraph investigative summary calls for immediate changes, saying firefighters must keep out of areas with overhead hazards when planes are dropping flame retardant. California’s firefighting agency said firefighters already are trained to do that and could not say what went wrong, citing an ongoing investigation.
Burchett was one of Utah’s most knowledgeable wildland firefighters and was careful about his surroundings, said Ryan Love, a spokesman for the Unified Fire Authority that covers most Salt Lake City suburbs.
“This was not a lack of knowledge by any means,” Love said. “It sounds like a pure accident.”
Burchett had been a firefighter since high school graduation and thrived in the tough conditions: sleeping on the ground, eating crew members’ rations and working to protect people, his family and friends said.
They described him as a sharp, hardworking leader with an infectious grin and unassuming manner who had recovered from a stroke in 2015.
His brother and fellow firefighter Dominic Burchett said he died a hero doing what he loved. He had an uncanny ability to “‘weasel’ his way into extra work where the action was,” his brother said with a smile.
Cliff Allen, president of the union representing California’s wildland firefighters, said fire supervisors should have made sure firefighters were well clear of the drop zone or that their positions were clearly marked for the pilot of the modified airliner dropping the liquid — in this case, either a modified DC-10 or a 747 — and for the pilot of the planes that guide the huge aircraft.
There could have been a radio miscommunication or the crew may not have heard or chose to ignore the radio warning, he said. Allen cautioned that it’s not clear from the preliminary report whether the tree was weakened from the fire or from the 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,” Allen said. “It’s often referred to as ‘widow makers.’”
He and other state fire spokesmen did not disclose the type of aircraft was involved in Burchett’s death.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection at times uses modified DC-10s that can drop 12,000 gallons (45,424 liters) of slurry, 12 times the amount carried by its standard smaller air tanker. It can lay a swath of fire retardant as wide as a football field for as long as a mile.
Cal Fire 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 (122 meters).
Firefighters who can’t get out of the way are trained to lie face down toward the oncoming aircraft, helmet on, chinstrap secured, one hand holding the top of the helmet as it takes the brunt of the impact, Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean said.
The firefighter’s legs should be spread to provide stability, because the force of the falling slurry and the air turbulence can otherwise lift a firefighter off the ground.
“If you’re in that particular area and you can’t leave, you want to get to a safe position,” McLean said.