California

A Utah firefighter was killed by an air retardant drop. His widow is suing Cal Fire

Take a tour of the Global SuperTanker

John Winder, COO of Global SuperTanker Services, gives a tour of the Global SuperTanker at Sacramento McClellan Airport, Thursday, June 20, 2019. The SuperTanker was crucial in fighting California's deadliest wildfires in 2018.
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John Winder, COO of Global SuperTanker Services, gives a tour of the Global SuperTanker at Sacramento McClellan Airport, Thursday, June 20, 2019. The SuperTanker was crucial in fighting California's deadliest wildfires in 2018.

One year after a Utah firefighter was killed when a supertanker dropped nearly 20,000 gallons of fire retardant near his position, his widow is suing Cal Fire and the aircraft company for alleged negligence.

Matthew Burchett, a 42-year-old battalion chief from Draper, Utah, was killed Aug. 13, 2018, when a modified Boeing 747-400 owned by Global SuperTanker Services LLC dropped its load of retardant from only 100 feet above the treetops and knocked an 87-foot-tall Douglas fir directly onto Burchett and three other firefighters, the lawsuit and a Cal Fire report say.

“The retardant drop was performed at less than 100 feet above the treetops, which is a much lower elevation than the required heights for such retardant drops,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court in Sacramento. “As a result, the expected ‘misting’ of the retardant did not occur and the retardant struck the surface, where Matthew and others were located, with incredible force.”

Burchett “suffered fatal crushing injuries,” according to a Cal Fire report issued a month after his death, and three other firefighters sustained injuries that included broken ribs, deep muscle contusions and ligament damage.

Cal Fire declined to comment Wednesday on pending legal matters. At the time of the incident, then-Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statement saying “our hearts ache for his wife and young son” and ordered flags flown at half-staff at the Capitol.

The lawsuit says Burchett had been called into the state to deal with “unprecedented fire activity throughout the state” and was assigned to the Ranch fire burning northeast of Ukiah. That blaze ultimately became part of the Mendocino Complex, a monster blaze comprised of the Ranch and River fires that became the largest recorded fire complex in state history, burning 459,123 acres and torching 157 homes.

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Draper City Fire Department battalion chief Matthew Burchett was killed while fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire on Monday. Draper City Fire Department

A Cal Fire “green sheet” report on the incident says firefighters were briefed the morning of Burchett’s death on “the hazards associated with air tanker retardant drops while working on the line” and that a radio broadcast made that afternoon told firefighters to “clear the area out.”

“Only one strike team leader acknowledged hearing the broadcast,” the report says, and air tankers made three drops between 4:02 p.m. and 4:44 p.m., the last one landing 300 feet west of site near Lake Pillsbury where Burchett was working to lay hose and reinforce a bulldozer line.

“The drop landed further outside the dozer line than desired,” the report says, and officials asked that “the next drop be ‘snugged up’ closer to the dozer line.”

That drop by the Global SuperTanker, designated a Very Large Air Tanker or VLAT, was supposed to come in at an altitude of 3,200 feet above mean sea level, the report says.

“Obscured by heavy vegetation and unknown to the VLAT pilot, a rise in elevation occurred along the flight path,” the report says. “This rise in elevation resulted in the retardant drop only being approximately 100 feet above the treetops at the accident site.”

The force of the drop knocked the 87-foot, 15-inch diameter Douglas Fir onto Burchett and also sheared off an 89-foot-tall, 18-inch diameter Douglas Fir that contributed to the others’ injuries, the report says.

The lawsuit – filed on behalf of Burchett’s widow, Heather, and son, Griffin – says that Burchett and the others were “in the black, which is a safe drop zone,” but the retardant was dropped in that safe zone.

The suit blames the defendants for negligence in training and communication with firefighters and seeks an unspecified amount of damages.

Cal Fire ultimately determined that the Ranch Fire was started by sparks from a claw hammer a property owner was using to hammer a stake into the ground.

Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.
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