WENDOVER — As the community prepares to lay a fallen hero to rest, Utah firefighters who battled the Mendocino Complex Fire in California alongside Battalion Chief Matt Burchett returned home Friday.
The Utah Task Force was met at the Utah-Nevada border by members of the Wendover Fire Department, who provided a solemn escort, without lights or sirens, across the state line.
Wendover Fire Capt. Cami Carter said losing someone in the first responder community is always difficult to deal with, but the loss is especially tough when it's "one of your own."
“It does shake a department, but it also bonds a department. … We’re all together, and it doesn’t matter if you’re 100 miles away or if you’re right next door," she said. "We all stand together.”
When the task force reached Wendover, a small crowd of community members greeted them, some waving American flags.
“I’ve never met him, but I’m here to support them, because they have families, too, to support, and little kids," said Jessica Gonzales, a community member there to show her support.
"And I have four little kids myself. And I hug my kids every night, because I think of all those people who go and fight fires and have to sacrifice their families."
Meanwhile, Burchett's family members say they are trying to move forward following his example of "service, kindness, generosity and humility," according to his obituary.
"You help to remind us: Don't ever be too busy to say I love you, tell people thank you and give them your gratitude," Burchett's family wrote in the obituary, which is written in the form of a letter to the firefighter.
In the heartfelt letter, the family recounts his life and describes his childhood. Ever since he was a young boy, the obituary reads, his parents knew that he would "change the world."
"You made rope swings and bike ramps and challenged your sense of fear and that of those around you. We believe this was the first inkling of your call to be a firefighter."
When Burchett attended Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City, he "made some lifelong friends, sharing many adventures and mischief together," according to the letter. He later discovered his "passion for service" as a wildland firefighter and he worked his way up the ranks in the fire service.
When he and his wife had their son, Burchett was "a patient and gentle father," the family writes.
"You taught him the importance of kindness, generosity, acceptance, and many skills for life. Skiing, multiplication tables, mountain biking, and how to build and run a gourmet lemonade stand were just a few. You taught Griff how to 'Matt-Gyver' the world," the obituary reads.
In 2015, Burchett suffered a stroke, according to his family, but remained "more capable and intelligent than most of us — using your creativity and ingenuity to build the home of your dreams."
In the letter, the family asks others to honor the firefighter's memory by hugging their loved ones, getting outside and enjoying "what you love the most."
Draper Fire Chief Clint Smith, who was out of the country when Burchett died, gave his thoughts for the first time on Friday about the veteran firefighter’s death. The chief used to work with Burchett at Unified Fire Authority and knew him for his entire 20-year career. Smith talked about his outstanding leadership abilities and how he was honored when Burchett chose to work for the newly formed Draper Fire Department.
“There are simply no words that adequately cover the depth of my grief and the loss that I feel,” the chief said as tears trickled out of his eyes, calling Burchett’s death “the most difficult challenge that I’ve had to face in my career.
“It was a complete fit. You know, there are so many times you go out and look for individuals to fill certain roles and you get almost all the way there, sometimes not all the way. And with Matt, it was a 100-percent fit. It was everything we needed at the time and he was a tremendous asset to our organization," Smith said.2 comments on this story
Even in the short time he was with Draper, Smith said Burchett made a lasting difference.
“The impressions Matt has left in the short time with our department are immeasurable. As a department, we will now work daily to live up to the legacy that Matt has left behind,” he said.
Burchett's funeral will take place Monday at 11 a.m. in the Maverik Center, 3200 Decker Lane Drive in West Valley City.
Contributing: Paul Nelson
Correction: A previous version of a photo cutline incorrectly identified Uintah firefighter Cory Lingelbach as Capt. Sort Lingelbach.