A firefighter from Utah died Monday battling the largest wildfire in recorded California history, marking the latest fatality in a fire season that has taken a grim toll on first responders.
The firefighter was injured while working on an active portion of the Ranch fire within the massive Mendocino Complex blaze. He was flown to a hospital, where he died. Authorities said “fact-finding on the accident” is underway.
“We are extremely heartbroken for this loss. We are dedicated to investigating what happened,” Sean Kavanaugh, a fire incident commander, said at a brief news conference. “We mourn as we also battle California’s largest wildfire that continues to burn extremely steep and remote terrain.”
On Tuesday, authorities identified the fallen firefighter as Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett, 42, of the Draper City Fire Department in Utah.
By Monday evening, the Mendocino Complex blaze, made up of the Ranch and River fires, had scorched more than 328,000 acres, destroyed 139 homes and left two firefighters injured. It was 67% contained.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman urged residents who have defied evacuation orders to leave.
“These are very dangerous areas,” Allman said. “If this could happen to a firefighter, it certainly could happen to citizens. … Today, tomorrow and the next year, we will mourn the loss of a true hero.”
The firestorms that erupted across the state amid scorching heat and bone-dry conditions have taken a devastating toll on fire crews.
A Redding firefighter, a bulldozer operator and a Pacific Gas & Electric utility worker have died during the Carr fire, which has destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Shasta County. Two more firefighters died while battling the Ferguson fire in Yosemite.
A mechanic with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection who had been assigned to the Carr fire also died in a vehicle crash in Tehama County.
It has been an explosive summer in California, adding to a year of unprecedented fire destruction. Since last fall, thousands of homes have been lost and more than 40 people killed from wine country down to Ventura County. In addition to the lost firefighters, four civilians — including two children — died in the Redding fire.
The fires in July and August have been fueled by record-setting heat, which has left brush dry and highly flammable.
The conditions have taken a particular toll on firefighters, who say they’ve been stretched thin as new fires keep breaking out.
On July 14, Braden Varney, a heavy-equipment operator with Cal Fire, died in rugged terrain while fighting the Ferguson blaze. Varney was driving a bulldozer cutting firebreaks when the machine overturned.
Two weeks later, Brian Hughes, captain of the Arrowhead Interagency Hotshots, was killed when he was struck by a tree while working with his crew to set a backfire — a tactic designed to limit a fire’s spread — on the east side of that same blaze. He was treated at the scene, but died before he could be taken to a hospital.
Then, as the Carr fire exploded into Redding neighborhoods on July 26, Jeremy Stoke, a fire prevention inspector, was killed. Authorities said Stoke “died while working to ensure the residents of west Redding had a chance to escape the flames.”