Fatality in Mendocino Complex Blaze Adds to Deadly Month for California Firefighters

Cal Fire firefighters battle the Medocino Complex fire on Aug. 7 near the Colusa County hamlet of Lodoga. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Updated 8:45 a.m. Tuesday

Cal Fire says a firefighter from Utah died Monday while battling the immense Mendocino Complex blaze, the sixth death recorded in the past month among the army of front-line crews, heavy equipment operators and support personnel struggling to quell a fierce wave of wildland conflagrations.

Cal Fire Incident Commander Sean Kavanaugh said at a briefing Monday night that the firefighter — later identified as Matthew Burchett, 42, of Draper, Utah — was fatally injured working on an active portion of the Ranch Fire, the larger of the two blazes that make up the Mendocino Complex.

Kavanaugh said the firefighter was airlifted to a local hospital where he died.

Joseph Dougherty, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety, said Burchett was a battalion chief with the Draper City Fire Department. He joined the agency just three months ago after serving for 20 years with the Unified Fire Authority, a department that serves more than a dozen communities and unincorporated areas near Salt Lake City.

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Dougherty said Burchett was one of five Draper firefighters deployed to the Mendocino Complex under a multistate mutual aid agreement.

"Our hearts are very heavy this morning as we digest what is tragic news for us," Draper Mayor Troy Walker said Tuesday morning. He called Burchett "a true hero."

As of Monday night, the Mendocino Complex fire had burned 350,000 acres since breaking out late last month northwest of Clear Lake. Last week, the combination of two fires became the largest since formal records were established in the 1930s, and on Sunday, the Ranch Fire became by itself the most extensive fire in state annals.

At the Monday night briefing, the sheriffs of Lake and Mendocino counties urged residents in two mandatory evacuation areas affected by the fires to heed those evacuation orders.

"If this could happen to a firefighter, it certainly could happen to citizens," Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said.

Fire officials said additional information on the fatality would be released at a later date.

The current series of firefighter fatalities began July 14, when bulldozer operator Braden Varney was killed after his machine tumbled down a precipitous slope the first night of the Ferguson Fire near Yosemite.

A second firefighter, Brian Hughes of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, also died on the Ferguson Fire. Hughes was killed by a falling tree on July 29.

Three fire personnel have died in the battle against the Carr Fire. Don Ray Smith, an 81-year-old bulldozer driver, and Jeremy Stoke of the Redding Fire Department, died when the blaze swept into the city's western edge on July 26 and 27. Andrew Brake, a Cal Fire heavy equipment mechanic assigned to the Carr Fire, was killed last week when his truck crashed on Highway 99 south of Red Bluff.

This post has been updated to include additional information about the firefighter fatality in the Mendocino Complex fire.