While flying the Boeing 747-400 over the mountainous terrain near Ukiah, Calif., the pilot didn’t notice the hill along the plane’s flight path.
Unaware that the plane went from flying 361 feet above the ground to 190 feet, the pilot released gallons upon gallons of pink fire retardant into the forest below, flying only about 100 feet above the treetops.
The retardant fell with such force that it uprooted a nearly 90-foot Douglas fir. As the tree fell, it killed 42-year-old Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett of the Draper City Fire Department in Utah.
The retardant also sheared off the top of an 89-foot tall Douglas fir, hitting a fire captain and breaking his ribs. Two other firefighters were hit with falling branches. The three survived.
Burchett died Aug. 13, less than two weeks after arriving in California with his crew to help fight the Mendocino Complex fire, the largest fire in modern state history. The fire burned 459,123 acres, destroyed almost 160 homes and killed one person — Burchett.
Stephen Pyne, one of the nation’s preeminent fire historians, said more firefighters are dying from falling trees, vehicle and aircraft accidents, and — especially among volunteer firefighters — heart attacks.
Pyne said the way Burchett died seemed like a fluke.
“Most drops are high enough and wide enough, the stuff just filters down — it’s like being coated with Pepto-Bismol,” said Pyne, a professor at Arizona State University and author of more than 30 books, mostly on the history and management of wildland and rural fire.
“That’s the point. It’s not a body blow. It’s not intended to smash a line. It’s intended to coat it,” he said. “But in this case, it was a really large plane with a really large load, and apparently, there was this hill, and those guys were there.”
This has been a hard year for firefighters in California.
A Redding firefighter, a bulldozer operator and a Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker died during the Carr fire, which destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Shasta County. Two more firefighters died while battling the Ferguson fire in Yosemite. Additionally, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection mechanic assigned to the Carr fire died in a vehicle crash in Tehama County.
And it’s not even October, when Santa Ana winds notoriously stoke large fires across Southern California.
A report by Cal Fire outlines what happened the day when Burchett was killed.
Burchett, a firefighter for 20 years, arrived Aug. 2 with his crew to battle the Mendocino Complex fire.
On the morning of Aug. 13, he attended the standard morning meeting, an operational briefing during which fire leaders outline the day’s plan. He then went to a smaller breakout session in which he would have learned more about the plan for the specific region where he and his crew would spend the day. During that session, a division safety officer discussed the hazards associated with air tanker retardant drops while working on the line, the Cal Fire report notes.
Burchett and his crew were assigned to work northeast of the town of Ukiah, along the northernmost section of the middle mountain range. The day’s job entailed reinforcing bulldozer lines and laying hose for a planned firing operation.
When fighting a large fire, bulldozers and firefighters working by hand create a boundary, or fire line, with hopes that the fire will not cross it because they’ve removed grass and other fuel that would feed the flames. Placing retardant close to the fire line makes it even harder for flames to spread past the boundary. This was the strategy used Aug. 13.
At 1 p.m., an inversion layer — which traps smoke and makes it unsafe to fly — lifted. Fire leaders requested that the aircraft drop retardant next to the fire line.
At 3:40 p.m., a division leader radioed the division leader trainee and said air tankers would soon start making retardant drops. Shortly thereafter, the trainee broadcast a message: “Clear the area out.” But only one strike team leader acknowledged hearing the message.
Within the next hour, two large air tankers made one drop each in the area of the Mendocino fire where Burchett and his crew were.
At 4:44 p.m., a drop was made about 300 feet from Burchett’s group. But the retardant landed too far from the fire line. A division leader asked that the next drop be “snugged up” closer to the line.
At 5:25 p.m., the aircraft’s pilot was given a drop path. But because of thick trees and dense brush, the pilot didn’t realize there was a rise in elevation along the flight path, according to the report.
Soon thereafter, Burchett was dead, his fellow firefighters bleeding and bruised. The report does not say how soon advanced life support arrived. The injured firefighters were taken to a hospital.
The report said supervisors must ensure all fire line personnel are notified, and acknowledge, news of impending aerial drops. It also suggests that firefighters have started using their cellphones to take video of aerial retardant drops, and that this might be distracting them from the inherent danger of the drops.
Late Friday, Global SuperTanker Services said via email that one of its planes made the drop that killed Burchett. The tanker crew made the drop upon the request of aerial supervisors and after being advised that the line was clear.
“We’re heartbroken for the families, friends and colleagues of Capt. Burchett and the other brave firefighters who were injured…. As proud members of the wildland firefighting community, we, too, have lost a brother.”
Pyne, who has studied fires across the U.S. for decades, said California has a historically high firefighter fatality rate — 346 of the 1,128 wildland firefighter deaths reported from 1910 to 2016 — not only because the state has explosive fires in tricky terrain, but also because California has a tradition of fighting fire aggressively.
“This is an intrinsically difficult environment,” Pyne said. “What justifies them being there? In other words, why are you building the line there? Why not back off further?”