SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) – A Draper City, Utah fire battalion chief was identified as the firefighter who died from injuries sustained while fighting the Ranch Fire in Lake County.
Draper City Mayor Troy Walker identified the firefighter as 42-year-old Battalion Chief Matt Burchett, one of five firefighters sent from the small town near Salt Lake City to help battle the largest wildfire in California history. He is survived by a wife and young son.
“Draper deployed five firefighters to California on August 2nd and the team has worked tirelessly to protect lives and property,” Walker told reporters at an emotional morning news conference. “The entire community of Draper is grieving his loss… These men are American heros. They literally stand in the fire to help other people. I don’t know how you get better than that.”
“They have been pulled off the line. They have been with him the entire time,” Walker added. “They have stood by their brother.”
In a statement released earlier Tuesday morning, Walker said the town was stunned by the loss.
“As you can imagine, our hearts are heavy as we digest this tragic news,” he wrote. “Last night, we lost one of our Draper firefighters, a true hero. He was fighting the California wildfires and protecting life and property.”
City officials said Draper was hired away from Utah’s Unified Fire Authority in May by the Draper Fire Department specifically because of his extensive knowledge battling wildfires during his 20-plus year career as a firefighter.
“He had a gleam in his eye and he had a grin that you could not look at and not grin back,” said Draper City Fire Department Asst. Chief Mike Watson. “He was a doer. He was a creator.”
Burchett and was an experienced firefighter who had a long history of battling wildfires.
“He has extensive training in wildland. That’s where he started his career. He’s one of the most knowledgable wildland firefighters I know,” said Draper City Battalion Chief Bart Vawdrey.
Vawdrey and Burchett have been friends for over 20 years. He and his fellow firefighters were shaken by the loss.
“It’s tough any time you lose a brother,” he said. “This is a job that we love. We got into this profession to help people. Matt jumped at the chance to go and assist in California.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown said “our hearts ache for his wife and young son.”
“Firefighters from across the nation – and world – have selflessly battled California’s massive wildfires, and sadly today we mourn the loss of one of those heroes from Draper, Utah, Chief Matthew Burchett,” Brown said in a statement. “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.”
Cal Fire posted initial information about the fatality on its Twitter account at about 7:25 p.m. Monday night.
The firefighter was the first reported fatality from the Mendocino Complex. Two other firefighters had previously been injured fighting the fire.
According to reports by the Lake County News, the firefighter was struck by a tree while fighting the Ranch Fire in Lake County.
The firefighter was transported to a local hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.
Cal Fire said the incident is currently under investigation.
The biggest wildfire in state history is now threatening homes near Lake Pillsbury in Lake County.
According to Cal Fire, the destructive ranch fire is still very active. The Ranch Fire and the River Fire are the two fires that make up the Mendocino Complex.
Combined, the two fires have burned about 538 square miles so far.
Six firefighters have now died in connection with a wave of massive wildfires that struck Northern California in recent weeks.
The deadliest wildfire, the Carr Fire, has left a total of eight people dead, including three firefighters.
Two firefighters have died fighting a fire near Yosemite National Park.