DRAPER — A master of his craft. A hero. Bright. Compassionate. An amazing athlete. A decorated career.
All these words were used Tuesday by friends and colleagues of Draper Fire Battalion Chief Matt "Matty" Burchett, 42, in remembering a man who touched so many lives. Burchett died at a California hospital Monday night while fighting one of California's many raging wildfires.
"He was special. He was a good, good soul. His footprints are all over this county, this state and several other states," said Unified Fire Authority Assistant Chief Mike Watson.
"Matt just led by example, was always the first to do something, never had to be asked to do anything, was always leading by example," said Unified Fire Capt. Jay Torgensen, one of Burchett's longtime friends.
"He got people to follow him because they wanted to be like him. He was an amazing man. He was an amazing example — just a quiet leader who motivated people by his actions."
"We are truly missing a great man who has given his life to the communities he took an oath to serve," added Unified Fire Chief Mike Petersen.
Burchett was in the Lake Pillsbury area of the Mendocino National Forest when he was injured Monday while fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire north of San Francisco, according to Draper Mayor Troy Walker.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said a tree fell on Burchett as he and others were fighting the fire downstream from a dam, according to the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa. Three others were injured.
Burchett was taken by medical helicopter out of the area and flown to a nearby hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.
About 40 firefighters from Salt Lake City, Draper, Murray, Lone Peak, Provo, Uintah City in Weber County and West Valley City left Utah on Aug. 2 to join more than 12,000 firefighters from throughout the country who are helping California firefighters.
Draper sent five firefighters to California for this mission and Unified sent one. Walker said all of them were pulled from the fire lines after Burchett was injured.
"They have been with him the entire time. He's had someone with him the entire time. They stood by their brother and have been with him the entire way," he said.
Those firefighters are now being sent home, according to Walker. The other Utah firefighters have reportedly been pulled off the lines and put up in a hotel until a determination can be made about whether they should also be sent home, according to Unified fire officials.
Burchett joined the Draper Fire Department in May after serving the Unified Fire Authority for 20 years.
He joined Unified's wildland division in 1995 and became a full-time firefighter in 1999, said Petersen. He became a wildland specialist in 2000 and in 2003 was part of the recovery effort for the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, he said. Burchett became a captain in 2009, began training other firefighters in 2011 and moved into the Emergency Management Division in 2016.
But his "true love and passion" was wildland firefighting, Petersen said. "He possessed an incredible knowledge and wealth of experience in this area."
In 2017, Burchett was sent to California to act as a liaison between that state and all of the Utah firefighters sent to the region.
"He trained and kept safe hundreds of wildland firefighters. He got firefighters out of situations," said Watson. "He was amazingly skilled. He was always thinking ahead. He was thinking days ahead. That's how good he was.
"Matty had many, many, many friends. … He kept many, many, many firefighters safe," he said.
Watson said he will miss Burchett dearly as he recalled how the battalion chief always had a gleam in his eye and an infectious grin.
Draper Fire Chief Clint Smith, who was out of the country on Tuesday, issued a prepared statement.
"Draper City Fire Department has no words to describe the depth of sorrow we are feeling," the chief said. "Matt is a true hero who has given the ultimate sacrifice while serving others."
Burchett is survived by a wife and a 7-year-old son. He also has a brother who still works for Unified fire.
While he remembers his friend as a great firefighter, Torgensen said what really made Burchett great is the person he was when he wasn't working.
"Most of all, the thing I admired about Matt the most is the amazing family man that he was," Torgensen said before pausing as he fought back tears. "What a great example he was as a father, a husband, sibling and a son. I've spent a lot of time with his family and he's an example of how to live your life."
"This is not only a loss for our Draper Fire Department but a loss for all fire departments in the nation," said Walker. "As you can imagine, our hearts are very heavy this morning as we digest what is tragic news for us."
Draper Fire Battalion Chief Bart Vawdrey knew Burchett for two decades.
"It's tough. Any time you lose a brother it's hard," he said.
As news of the firefighter's death spread, messages of condolence were posted by fire departments across the state as well as from state and county officials and law enforcement agencies on social media.
"We are devastated to hear about the loss of this selfless firefighter and hero. Our hearts are with his family and friends today," Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted Tuesday morning.
He followed that tweet up a few hours later with one that says: "Today is a sad day in Utah. We are heartbroken for the family of (Draper) Fire Battalion Chief Matt Burchett, who gave his life heroically fighting a fire in Northern California. Chief Burchett's wife and son will be in our minds, hearts and prayers today."
"Our hearts are breaking as we announce the loss of one of Draper City's firefighters in the Mendocino Fire last night. Words cannot explain how it feels to lose a true hero. We sent five of our team members to California to battle these terrible fires. A very sad day in Draper," the city of Draper tweeted.
Utah Fire Info, the group providing information on many of Utah's wildfires, tweeted a picture Tuesday from the Coal Hollow Fire of firefighters there holding a moment of silence.
At Draper City Hall and Draper Fire Station No. 22, where Burchett was stationed, American flags were placed around the perimeter of the property as flags on poles were set at half-staff.
California Gov. Jerry Brown also ordered flags at the California state Capitol building to be flown at half-staff in honor of Burchett.
"Firefighters from across the nation — and world — have selflessly battled California's massive wildfires, and sadly today we mourn the loss of one of those heroes," Brown said.
But neither Vawdrey nor Walker believe Monday's tragedy will deter local firefighters from going back to California or any other state that needs them when duty calls.
"This is a job that we love. We got into this profession to help people and Matt jumped at the chance to go assist in California and I think anybody in our department would do the same," Vawdrey said.9 comments on this story
"I mean, these men are American heroes," Walker added. "They go out, they literally stand in the fire to help other people. I don't know how you get better than that."
Torgensen said it's difficult for him to wrap his head around the tragedy.
"I couldn't believe it. I absolutely couldn't believe it. We know there's a certain amount of risk with our jobs. You don't go to work thinking that sort of thing is going to happen. That No. 1 thing on our mind is safety, and I know that's always the No. 1 thing on Matt's mind is safety, going home to his family.
"I just, can't believe it."