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Utah battalion chief’s death may have been linked to airplane retardant drop

Fire retardant dropped from a plane into an area that should have been cleared of firefighters may have had something to do with the death of Matthew Burchett


Fire retardant dropped from a plane into an area that should have been cleared of firefighters may have had something to do with the death of Matthew Burchett,


By Kurtis Alexander and Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

LAKE COUNTY, Calif. — Fire retardant dropped from an airplane into an area that should have been cleared of firefighters may have had something to do with last week’s death of a battalion chief at Northern California’s Mendocino Complex fire.

Matthew Burchett, 42, was struck and killed by falling tree debris Aug. 13 near Lake Pillsbury (Lake County) in a spot where, simultaneously, thousands of gallons of the chemical slurry used to quash flames was released, state fire officials said in a preliminary report Monday.

The report did not specify what role the retardant played in Burchett’s death — for example, whether it caused tree branches to fall. But the drop appears to be at odds with safety protocol recommending that fire personnel retreat from areas where retardant is about to be used.

Monday’s three-sentence report by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, is expected to be followed by a more detailed analysis of what went wrong. Three other firefighters were injured in the incident.

“Not much can be said until the investigation comes out,” said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.

Cliff Allen, president of the union that represents firefighters, Cal Fire Local 2881, said he was not privy to the details of last week’s accident, but said firefighting policy generally dictates that ground crews be made aware of overhead retardant drops and cleared out. He said a communication lapse may have occurred in the case of Burchett and his fellow workers.

“We’re trained to keep ourselves out of the area,” he said. “The sheer weight and velocity of the drops themselves can be dangerous. ... For whatever reason, if you’re in the area, you’re supposed to lay down on the ground, put your tools aside and hang onto your helmet.”

The tree debris blamed for Burchett’s death may have been forced down by the retardant or wind from the plane, Allen speculated, or it just could have fallen down at the same time as the drop and had little to do with it.

Burchett was the sixth firefighter killed responding to California’s historic spate of wildfires this summer. It’s the most lethal season since 2008. Many say the combination of fierce fires, limited staff and fatigue has played a role.

“Unfortunately, because there’s so many personnel putting in long hours and so much equipment moving up and down the state, and fire itself is hazardous, it all just adds up,” Allen said.

In the aftermath of Monday’s report, Cal Fire officials have reiterated their directive for fire line personnel to remain clear of areas where retardant or water is being dropped.

Fire retardant is generally made up of water, fertilizer and a red coloring agent and plays a major role in helping stop the spread of a wildfire before hand crews move in to put it out. In the spot where Burchett was working, the mix was dropped from either a DC-10 or a 747, officials said.

Burchett, who is survived by his wife and 7-year-old son, worked for the Draper City Fire Department in Utah and had driven to the California wildfire with department colleagues to help out earlier this month. He died on a fire line in the Ranch Fire — the largest fire in state history, one of two wildfires that make up the Mendocino Complex. His funeral was held Monday in Utah.

At 351,557 acres, the Ranch Fire in Lake, Mendocino, Colusa and Glenn counties is the largest wildfire in California history. It was 74 percent contained as of Monday evening.

Fire activity in the north and northeastern portions of the blaze pushed more people out of their homes Sunday and Monday as the Glenn County Sheriff’s Office announced additional mandatory evacuations.

The order includes all areas north of the Glenn-Colusa county line, east of the Mendocino National Forest boundary, south of County Road 308 and west of County Road 306, according to the sheriff’s alert.

Glenn County’s mandatory evacuations follow others in the neighboring counties where the fire is burning.

Meanwhile, the Carr Fire in Shasta and Trinity counties is inching closer to full containment at 88 percent Monday. The blaze had burned 229,651 acres as of Monday night. To date, the flames have destroyed 1,079 residences.

In a weekend win elsewhere, firefighters declared victory over the Ferguson Fire, announcing 100 percent containment Sunday. The Ferguson Fire devoured nearly 100,000 acres in Mariposa County and emptied out Yosemite Valley due to heavy smoke for much of the summer.

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